Monday, December 29, 2008

Innovation and Reformation - Together At Last

Among people who see a need and want to lead change, there is a philosophical distinction between two approaches. The first, which I’ll call innovation, wants to create new stuff. The second, which I’ll call reformation, wants to do existing stuff differently. These two approaches certainly do not exhaust the options, but for the most part change agents are either innovators or reformers.

In her amazing book, “The Great Emergence,” Phyllis Tickle writes that “the tension toward changing things externally into new forms, as opposed to reworking them internally into what should be, has been a major characteristic of each of our previous hinge times and will continue to be part of our present one” (p. 58). Tickle notes for example that after Martin Luther was pushing outward with the new “Protestant” vision for the church, the Catholic Reformation followed with renewal from within. The result was a “genuine, sincere, and in many ways beneficent” reform.

There is no need to choose either innovation or reform. There is nothing inherently wrong with brand new things, just as there is nothing inherently good about them. Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong with tradition, just as there is nothing inherently good about it. And both tasks are difficult. It is just as hard to create something from scratch as it is to breathe new life into something ancient. Both approaches are perfectly reasonable, effective ways to lead change.

But too often, innovators and reformers compete with one another instead of cooperating. Some of this competition gets nasty, even. Innovators do not think reformers truly desire change. Reformers see innovators as throwing out the baby with the bath water. It becomes difficult for an innovator and a reformer to even talk together about change sometimes.

“Can you not see how beautiful this tradition is, if we could only do it better?” says the reformer.

“Oh, you’re just saying ‘We’ve always done it this way’ and that kind of thinking never leads us anywhere!” says the innovator.

It degenerates from there quite quickly.

"You have no respect for tradition!" says reformer.

"You old fuddy-duddy!" says innovator.

I am more of a reformer than an innovator, in that I love the ancient forms of the Christian faith and want to breathe new life into them. I loathe stagnancy, and lament when the beautiful liturgy of the church becomes rote and mechanical. And so I want to change things by reforming that which we already have so that it lives again. So I will take an ancient hymn and compose a new tune for it, for example.

And at the same time I do not begrudge innovators who are creating brand new things in the meantime. There is room for both approaches. "I love the unknown, baby!" (as my friend John Schmalzbauer said at a recent Christmas party). Brand new experiences stretch us, make us think, compel us to respond. We grow and learn via new ideas, insights, and encounters.

One of the coolest things trending in churches right now is a reclamation of ancient expressions and practices of faith. An the thing is, people have "grown up on" contemporary church with all of its innovation and new emphases, so now the ancient things seem new and innovative! What an irony, huh? We do a sung liturgy for communion for example, an ancient practice, and people think it is the latest, greatest innovation!

The nutshell is, I believe that the church needs to change in order to stay faithful to God's mission, and I think that change needs to be both innovation and reform. "Because we've never done it that way before" is not a good motivation whether you are in favor of change or opposed!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Food for Liturgical Thought

"It is a scandal within Christianity that Easter can be reduced to a "celebration" that lasts a few hours on one Sunday morning, while Christmas songs are piped into our ears from mid-October on."
- Glenn Pauuw, in this article at

iTunes Prayer Book

According to this article, the Pope signs his text messages "BXVI."

I wonder how our Bishop signs his text messages? Hmm...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Re-Discovered

There's something magical about strolling around the Plaza in Kansas City with my family of origin during Advent. I don't know how many times I've done it over the past 37 Advents, but it's safe to say it has been most of them. Erin and the kids and I drove up to KC Friday afternoon after the funeral and met Mom and Dad, my sister and nephew, my brother and his fiance', and we did our thing.

We went into the bookstore, we ate a really nice dinner, we gave our nephew his birthday presents, we walked to the penguin statues and posed with them, we crossed the bridge and made my brother do his Winston Churchill impersonation, we watched lights and horses pulling carriages and people meeting people, we traded Christmas presents.

And somewhere in between leaving the cemetary after the funeral on Friday afternoon and crashing into bed late late that night, I think I may have re-discovered a bit of Christmas. At least the doorway opened a crack and a bit of light shone through.

And then Sunday morning that door opened further during what Campbell UMC calls the "Nativity Parade." Sort of a mini-Christmas pageant, the Nativity Parade consists of congregational singing of several traditional carols, during which the children of the church walk down the center aisle in costume, ending up posed in the chancel area, depicting the birth of Jesus.

Stars, livestock, shepherds, wise men (and women, in our case), the holy family, angels. The whole cast of characters was there. And I don't know if it was that one small preschool star at the early service coming down the aisle all by himself, or maybe my son Wesley dressed as an angel with a gold garland halo sitting crooked on his head, or my daughter Cori who was representing the Wise Women bearing gifts, or the sight of Shane (our Children's Director's husband) who had dressed in full shepherd regalia in order to lead our littlest cows, sheep, and camels into the room, or the sheer silliness of kids wearing enormous false beards and carrying wooden canes as shepherd crooks, or maybe the buzz of energy in the room as the grown-ups craned their necks to get a glimpse of the wonderful sight and smiled with delight, or what.

I don't know what it was exactly, but all of a sudden the door into Christmas was thrown wide open, and I walked through. All of that stuff from my previous post still happened; it's still there. But I hit the reset button on my perspective, and things look different today. It's not so much that the blues went away, it's that I sang through them, and came out the other side.

We had a nativity parade at all three services, and it happened every time! My spirit is in such a better place today. We hosted an open house at the parsonage last night, and it was truly a joy to welcome the dozens and dozens of people who stopped by, mugs in hand, to enjoy a bit of hot apple cider and a cookie or two, but mostly just to be together and smile and laugh and talk and embrace one another.

Today is Christmas Eve Eve Eve. (My kids have been tracking how many "Eves" for about a week now.) And today I'm smiling easier. Maybe it was the Plaza. Maybe it was the Nativity Parade. Maybe it was all the thoughts and prayers of my family and friends. Maybe it was a little bit of everything. Maybe it was how God moved through all of those things together to (once again) surprise me with such astounding love. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Could be the Blues?

This week has included…
…the disruption of our foster daughter.
…presiding at a difficult funeral for a young man.
…my brother’s apartment robbed.
…a dear friend going through a painful divorce.
…and the weather’s not helping much, either.
...[etcetera, etcetera, etcetera]

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Yesterday there was a radio guy who encouraged listeners to call my children’s school in order to call them “communist” and “godless” because the parties they have scheduled for this week are being called Winter Parties instead of Christmas Parties. How weak does one’s faith have to be to believe that the birth of Christ is somehow threatened by the name of an elementary school party? And what would motivate someone to disrupt the routine of an elementary school by flooding the office with annoying phone calls? And how would that be a good Christian witness, exactly? ... [rant averted]

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

Okay, Okay, Okay - - - I get it. Life happens. God is good. Christ is born. All that stuff.
I know that in my head. I suppose that I have been caught in the middle of the juxtaposition of the good news and the real world. When I get stuck in a place like this, the only thing that works for me is to just keep singing.

O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to all on earth!

I love "O Little Town of Bethlehem." It covers "hopes AND fears." I've got plenty of both today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


With grief and after much, much thought and prayer, we have had to disrupt our foster daughter’s placement with us. She moved out on Friday.

Friday morning Erin and I packed up all of her belongings in boxes. Then that afternoon, her case worker came to the house and we loaded her things into the trunk of the car. We then drove to the school, where we called our own kids out of class to say good-bye, and went to her classroom to pick her up.

The six of us walked out to the parking lot. Then we gave her hugs and told her that we loved her and we would miss her. She got in the back of her worker’s car and we waved good-bye as they drove off.

We were all upset, and there were a few tears. After a few minutes and a few hugs, we walked the kids back into school where they returned to their classes and Erin and I drove home.

We made this decision because her anger had grown to a level we could not handle any more. Her fits of rage were daily, and sometimes multiple per day. Our kids had begun spending more and more time in their rooms, just to be away from her. She had brought them to tears with her hateful words several times. She had begun to hit Erin, threatened to bite, and at one time picked up a pair of scissors in the midst of her fit. She had broken things and done damage to walls and doors and furniture.

In between these fits, she was a very sincere, funny, sometimes even sweet little girl. She had absolutely no trouble at school or church. Her teacher really loved her. People at church are very surprised that we had to have the placement disrupted. She was making great improvements in reading and math, and liked doing homework a lot. She liked to paint and draw, and her favorite subject was big valentine hearts, which she drew on almost everything. Seeing other kids play piano, she liked to sit down and try to pick out tunes for herself sometimes.

But we had started to think of these periods as just time in between tantrums. And we were living in dread of what might trigger her next fit – being told it was bedtime, or that she couldn’t have a third doughnut, or that it wasn’t her turn on computer, or that she had to finish her vegetable before she could have dessert. It could have been just about anything.

It was clear to us that she needed much more care than we could offer.

And so this is better. It is better for us already, and the four of us are kind of coming out of our shell-shocked-ness a little bit these last few days. And we hope it is better for her, too. We hope she is in a place where her anger can be channeled, and where an environment that is a bit more controlled may provide structure that we were unable to give.

But maybe not. Maybe she is going to have an adolescence where she fights everyone she ever meets. Maybe she is going to decide never to let anyone ever love her. Ever. Maybe her life is going to be horrible.

Or maybe there was a seed planted in these last three months. Maybe there was a seed of “this-is-how-a-functional-family-lives” planted in her eight years of dysfunction, anger, and neglect. Who knows?

We feel pretty rotten about this whole deal, to tell you the truth. We feel like we failed. We feel angry at her parents for being really, really crappy parents. We feel relieved that she is gone from our household, and immediately feel guilty for feeling relieved. So we’re pretty mixed up right now, as you can imagine.

We are open to new foster placements, though. In fact, we got a call on the very day before she left, when we knew it was coming but it hadn’t happened yet. That placement ended well when they found a family member that could take the two sisters and our services were not required. We don’t hope for a placement, of course, because that would mean that a kid or kids have been taken out of their home, and that’s never a good thing. Rather, we are open to one, should one come up.

That is the latest in our foster family world. It is a difficult time, but we’ll be okay. We’d love your prayers of support and good thoughts. And if you would, keep all of our foster kids in your prayers, too. We love them all, and we always will.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Away in a Manger Update

Recently, I wrote about the preschoolers here knowing all the words to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" but none of the words to "Away in a Manger." (click here to read it)

Well, here is a happy update:

Last week, one of our preschool classes went "Christmas Caroling" to the offices around the church building. When they got to my office and kind of clumped around my door, their teacher said, "Are you ready to sing the special song we learned for Pastor Andy?"

"Ye-e-e-e-s," they said in that drawn-out way that little kids do when they are saying something all together. They were very excited. Some of them were actually hopping up and down!

And then they sang for me ... you guessed it ... the first verse of "Away in a Manger."

It was wonderful. I was very moved, both by the kids singing and by the thoughtfulness of the teachers, Liza and Debbie, who had heard my comment the week before and made it a point to take the time to teach their kids Away in a Manger. It was such a beautiful gesture, not soon forgotten.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reporter Column

The good people of the United Methodist Reporter have published one of my blog posts.

Click here to see it online. Here is the original post.


In other news: frequent commentor here (and my cousin), Patrick, is on his way home from Iraq this week. Prayers for safe travels and a happy, happy reunion when you get home, Patrick!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Still No Room

A party. A concert. A dinner.
A tree. A nutcracker. A strand of lights.
An inflatable snowman. Illuminated.

There’s still no room.

A list. A sale. A door buster.
A parking lot. A shopping center. A mall.
A ribbon. Tape. Disappearing.

There’s still no room.

A song. A radio station. Background noise.
You better watch out. I wanna hippopotamus.
Rudolph the Reindeer. Glowing.

There’s still no room.

A cookie. A pie. A piece of candy.
A turkey dinner. A fruitcake? Eggnog.
A brunch buffet. All-you-can-eat.

There’s still no room.
He’s still headed for the stable.
A manger. A bed of straw. A few shepherds.

Who’s the innkeeper this year?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Sign me up!

Maybe this summer I'll be looking like this guy.
Question of the day: If you were creating a workout just for pastors, how would it be different from a regular old non-pastory workout?

Nothing Against Santa Claus, but ...

Every other Tuesday morning I lead the preschool chapel service at the church. This past Tuesday, two classes arrived in the sanctuary a bit early, and we were singing some random Christmas songs while we waited for the third class to arrive. The kids were calling out songs and I was playing them on the piano and we were all singing along. It was great.

We sang a couple, and then a kid called out “Better Watch Out!” So we sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and I must say that they all sang out loud, and many of them seemed to know every word. When we got done there was still time for one more, so I played the intro to “Away in a Manger” and started singing the first verse.
None of the kids – NONE – even recognized the song, let alone knew it well enough to sing. I immediately realized my mission of the season – teach the preschool kids “Away in a Manger.”

I realize that I risk sounding like an old guy complaining about “kids these days,” but it actually kind of upset me that none of the kids even recognized “Away in a Manger,” but knew “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by heart. There were probably 35 or 40 kids in the room. Surely one of them would have known it. I understand that each kid has experienced at most 4 Christmases in his or her brief life, but I would have thought at least a few of them might have sung “Away in a Manger” a time or two.

But the point is not just that they don’t know many Christmas songs, it is also that they knew the Santa song really, really well. So somehow in their four Christmases on earth they managed to learn that one. I’m not trying to blame anyone for anything here, just to make an observation.

And also to claim a personal mission. Every ordained clergy person in the United Methodist Church makes a promise “to teach the children” wherever we go. So a part of mine is going to be teaching kids sacred Christmas songs every year. I think I’ll start with “Away in a Manger.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

Coffee with John the Baptist

I wonder what it would have been like to have a cup of coffee with John the Baptist? I’m sure it would not have been dull. If I could get him to stop asking me to repent long enough, we might have a conversation.

“What’ll it be, John?” I’d ask.
“I’ll take a Double Locust Espresso with a Wild Honey Drizzle,” he would reply.
“Mmm. I’ll just have the Pumpkin Spice, please.”
Coffee ordered, we’d sit at a table far away from the counter. “So John, how’s life treating you these days?” I’d say.
“Well, it’s good. People are coming from all over to listen. I’ve been dunking people in the river right and left. But my camel fur underwear is pretty itchy, and my feet are all pruney. By the way, have you thought about repenting and being baptized? It would be very good for you, you know.”
“Yes, John, I have, thanks for asking. Listen, I could get you some softer clothes, maybe. And a pair of wading shoes might help.”
“No, no. I’m not worthy of that kind of luxury. Besides, it’s not really about me, anyway, is it?”
“What do you …? Oh right, the one coming after you, I remember. What’s up with that again?”
Tapping his hand on the edge of the table nervously, John would say, “You know, you really should give serious consideration to repentance. It would be in your best interest. But yeah, as to that one coming after me who is more powerful than I and I’m not even worthy to untie his shoe, I’m kinda getting people ready for him. By the way, are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Ready for him?”

Are you? Are you ready? Expect a messenger – one who will prepare the way, make the path straight. Sometimes I wonder if we’re even ready for the messenger, much less the one who is being announced.

Are you ready?