Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Day Before the Day Before

For me, the day before Christmas Eve feels more like an “eve” than the 24th does. The 24th of December is a work day, but the 23rd always has a sense of preparation and anticipation.

We will be having three worship services tomorrow, at 4:00, 7:00, and 11:00. Each one is a little bit different; different special music, different anticipated audience, different liturgical pieces. So I have one sermon, but in three different forms, one for each service.

However, today I have made a point to not do too much. The staff went to lunch for a birthday, I did some calendar, answered some mail, read a bit, practiced my sermon(s) for tomorrow. But really not too much. I’m only up to 3,570 steps on my pedometer, for goodness sake!

It feels kind of weird, to tell you the truth. I have to force myself to operate in this mode, if that makes sense. I talk so much about people needing to slow down, take time for themselves, and have relaxing days, but it is hard to take that advice myself. I need to remember that today has been a gift.

Today is “the day before;” it is an oddly placed pseudo-Saturday in the middle of the week. Only the “Sunday” that follows is not really Sunday, it is Christmas Eve – that holiest of holy celebrations. All day tomorrow I will be an excited, jumbled up ball of nervous energy as I wait for worship. Most Sundays, my nervous energy is expended from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, then it’s over and I come crashing down. But tomorrow I’ll have to find a way to pace it, to channel it, to keep it contained until the evening.

It is a wonderful season, and nearing its fulfillment. The wait is almost over! The miracle is about to begin.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Foster Care Christmas

Last night my family went to see Santa Claus. The six of us piled into the mini-van and headed out for the offices of Missouri Baptist Children's Home, where the jolly old elf waited. MBCH is the agency through which we are licensed as a foster family, and coincidentally is also the agency that is handling our foster boys' case.

It was quite a party! Santa and Mrs. Claus were indeed there, and each kid got a gift. (Our own kids, too! Plus, there was a gift for foster parents - a Casting Crowns CD!) There were pictures with the boys, and snacks, punch, and music. Our kids had a great time.

The entire staff of MBCH was there, dressed in festive costumes, happy, laughing, playing with all the kids. And there were a BUNCH of kids there, with their foster families. It was wild and chaotic, just like a Christmas party should be.

In the midst of the wildness, there was a moment that I found myself standing off to the side with a cup of punch and a cookie, watching the people. Watching the children. Every one of them has a story, you know, and most of the stories are not happy. Every one of those kids was away from home, taken into foster care because of some catastophic reason.

How many had been abused? Which ones had been neglected? Were there kids who had come from drug houses? Which little one had been born addicted to meth? Whose parents may have been just unable to function at a high enough level to care for children?

There was no way to know the answers to the questions that arose unbidden in my mind. And then I realized that, for tonight at least, there was no need to answer them.

Last night, with smiles and music and laughter and Santa and all those people loving all those children, it was enough to just let it be Christmas.

btw - If you are interested in becoming a foster family, or know of someone who is, please contact me and I will make sure you get connected to the right people.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Selfless Moment, or The Church Being the Church

Last week, a family’s home burned and they lost everything. We learned about it through our congregation’s contact in the “Adopt-a-Caseworker” program, a part of “Ambassadors for Children” here in Springfield. The family was receiving services in hopes that the children would be able to stay with their parents and avoid being taken into foster care.

So we put the word out on the congregation’s Facebook page and announced it in worship, and the response was overwhelming. Many, many people brought clothing, furniture, and other assorted household items to contribute. Erin toted a bunch of the stuff down to the AFC office yesterday afternoon, and there may be more to come.

Late yesterday afternoon, a woman stopped by my office with an envelope in her hand. She wanted to contribute to the family. I thanked her and took the envelope. Before she left, she paused. I sensed that she had something else to say.

She referred to her husband and said, “Yeah, we talked about it and decided to give the amount we were going to spend on Christmas presents for each other. We’ve got enough stuff, and it just feels right to do this.”

What a powerful moment! Two people decided to give up their own Christmas gifts for the sake of a family that they do not even know. I had to swallow the lump in my throat as I again thanked her deeply for their generosity.

Last night I reflected on the gift, and I realized that what I had witnessed was no less than the church in its very best expression – people coming together around a common purpose, thinking not of themselves but of others, and sharing the love of God with strangers.

There is no way to know exactly what the gifts will mean for the family, or if the kids will be able to stay at home thanks, in part, to the selflessness of those who gave. There will be no way to assess if our ministry is "successful" in that sense. This family might yet fall to pieces.

But the moment of selflessness was truly was a beautiful sight to see. Maybe every now and then that's all there is to being the church ... doing what we can without thought for ourselves for the sake of someone else.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pray for Peace

A quick search on turns up 247 occurrences of the word “peace” in the New International Version of the Bible. The first one is in Genesis and the last one is in Revelation. “Peace” is in Torah, the historical books, the psalms, the prophets, the gospels, and Paul’s letters. It’s all over the place!

One of the numerous places the word appears is in this week’s Advent prophecy from Micah 5. The one who is promised, the shepherd/king who will come from Bethlehem, will be one of peace, says Micah.

Each week of this season, Campbell UMC’s prayer focus during worship has expanded outward. We began with prayers for our local community, then prayed across Missouri, and last week were in prayer for our nation. This week our focus extends to the entire world.

And it is a world where peace is very hard to come by. Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Northern Ireland – the list of places infected with violence seems to be endless. It is staggering to consider, and we might be tempted into apathy: “What good will our prayers do, after all?”

Well, what if our prayers for peace also submitting ourselves to be agents on behalf of God’s peace? What if our prayers also included offering ourselves to God on behalf of true shalom in this world? What if, rather than wring our hands, we offered them into God’s service?

Could we change the world … on earth as it is in heaven? That’s our prayer, isn’t it? “On earth as it is in heaven.” Pray for peace – then live the prayer.

After all, What ARE we waiting for?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Significance of the Nativity: The Preschool Perspective

There’s not much in this world better than telling the Christmas story to a group of preschoolers. They are so eager and excited by the mysteries and the simple strangeness of the Nativity. Hearing it as they do always refreshes my own love for the story, and I always hear it in a new way.

They are always appalled that there wasn’t any place for Mary and Joseph to stay, and someone often asks why they didn’t just go to the hops-pistal, and you have to explain about Bethlehem being so crowded and that there weren’t really any hops-pistals, anyway, so they just had to try the best they could, and they understand about that.

Then there’s the part about putting the newborn baby Jesus in a manger, and then you’ve got to explain to the kids that it was a box that animals ate out of, and then you reassure them that no, the animals did not eat the baby, but they were probably close by, wondering what was going on.

And when you get to the part about the angels appearing like magic in the shepherds’ field, you can see in their faces the way they are imagining it, because their eyes kind of twinkle and they get a small, vague smile on their lips, and you are suddenly sure that the choir of angels must have looked very much like the group right in front of you right at this moment.

And then the shepherds go and visit the barn and if you forget to include the sheep they will always ask about them, so you have got to be ready with a satisfactory answer or the next several minutes will be spent debating the question, since for some it is an issue of basic sanitation for the baby and for others it is a matter of justice for the sheep, who after all, would want to go visit baby Jesus, too.

When the magi arrive they get to say the word “magi” out loud which is always giggly, but then when you get to “frankincense” and “myrrh” it escalates a bit until someone raises their hand and very sincerely challenges, “But I tought dey were de tree kings,” and so you assure her that they were very, very important people, whether they are kings or magi or wise men, and they came to worship Jesus.

And this year, when we got to that part in the story, one of my little angels raised her hand to say, “Even if they were kings, Jesus was the boss of them, too,” which is a very significant statement for a preschooler who spends a great deal of time worrying about who is and isn’t the boss of them, and at that moment I knew that the story was over because that was pretty much the point, wasn’t it. Because there it is, in the most eloquent 4-year-old-ese, “Jesus was the boss of them, too.”

And so, this time, the story ends that way. Mary, Joseph - angels, children - shepherds, sheep - magi, kings - you, and me - Jesus is the boss of us, too.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Right Way Through a Horrible Place?

Heads up – this post will contain a political opinion! It may differ from your own, in part or perhaps entirely, and that’s okay. I say this, first of all because I believe that grace-filled, respectful dialogue can happen in matters political, too. Secondly, there are those who think a pastor should have no opinions about political issues, or at least shouldn’t express them. So if you are moved to comment, please do so with respect and grace, and realize this is just my opinion, it’s neither my congregation’s nor my denomination’s official position or anything like that.

I do not think that any reasonable person enjoys war. I think it would be a nearly universal belief that, if the right social/political/economic conditions were present such that there would be no need for war, we’d all be happy with that state of affairs. It seems to me that the biggest conflicting opinions we have are about what exactly those social/political/economic conditions would be. However, currently our nation is at war, and has been for years and years, so the question of the moment is not really “do you like war?” but rather “what should we do about it?”

President Obama sketched out a new approach to the war in Afghanistan last night, and here’s my take on what he said. We are going to send more troops for a limited time period, we are going to hold the Afghani government accountable to create stability, and we are going to work with Pakistan to accomplish the goal.

Consider two groups listening – group A wants the soldiers brought home immediately; group B wants a strategy that does not include a timetable at all. Sending more troops is going to get a thumbs-down from group A, but thumbs-up from group B. Giving the date of July 2011 to begin bringing them home will get a tentative thumbs-up from group A, and an emphatic thumbs-down from group B.

Of course there are people in between and all around those two groups, but I'm defining them for the sake of conversation.

The ambiguity here is that the war is against an ideology, not a nation. I do not think that military strength is the right means to eradicate the extremism that emerges in terrorist attacks. But I’m also not in “group A” – to bring soldiers home immediately would undoubtedly cause more harm than good. It is crucial to consider the innocents whose lives would be destroyed by the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from the region.

And this is precisely where I agree with the new approach the President spoke about last night. Because things are where they are, sending more soldiers is necessary, for the sake of the innocents. And at the same time, the legitimate governments in the region will know that there is urgency to create the kind of social/political/economic conditions that generate stability and allow for peace. There needs to be a goal to work toward, which is why I am not in “group B.”

The way to confront a destructive ideology is not with military might alone. The president said, “Right makes might.” That line caught me by surprise, and I wasn’t sure what it meant at first. I think it means that our strength comes from doing the right thing, not our ability to destroy an enemy. But at the same time, the expression of the ideology we are confronting violently kills innocent people, and that just cannot continue happening.

Stopping the expression of the ideology with the military, and simultaneously confronting the ideology itself by eliminating its root causes, seems to me to be the way to go, and what the president outlined last night. We can’t just kill the people doing the violence, and think that’s going to solve the problem. The ideology will still be there, and it will foster more people to express it.

I hate the idea of sending even more soldiers into harms way. I also hate the idea of innocent people caught up in the middle of violence. I am in awe of U.S. soldiers who are serving, so far from home, for the sake of other people. What an amazing testimony of sacrifice and selflessness. I am deeply grateful for every one of them, and pray for them and for their families, who long for their safety every single moment they are away.

Look, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff, and I’m sure that many who read this will find points of disagreement. That’s fine. I’m just saying, it is my opinion that the basics of the strategy that President Obama gave last night represent the right way to deal with a horrible, complicated, and painful situation.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Prayer - by Cori Bryan

Dear God,

I don't know why we have only one day to give thanks,
But while we are here we might as well start.
We all have many thank-yous in many different lengths,
And every one comes straight from our heart.

We thank you for our food, and that we have a bite to eat.
We thank you for our family and meeting here together,
We thank you for pies and cakes, for a treat,
And thank you for the climate and having good weather.

We know people all over the world don't have good things,
They don't have food, shelter, or really much to do.
We should be thankful we have that stuff, and lots of other piles of things.
And we should be thankful for you.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Life Is Short, Walk Slow

I have come up with my spiritual discipline for this Advent - I am going to walk slower.

Everywhere I go, my steps will be at a slower tempo than my default pace. I'll be sauntering places, or perhaps moseying. (I may even stroll from time to time, or maybe amble.) I have already been practicing, and let me tell you it is going to require an intentional effort to slow my steps every time I walk anywhere. Apparently, I am a pretty fast walker most of the time ... I'm just sayin.

A couple of questions that are probably wandering through your mind - "Why? is one. And "how is that a spiritual discipline?" may be another.

Why? Because I think Advent needs intentional spiritual disciplines just like Lent does. The event for which we prepare during this season is so enormous, so earth-shatteringly powerful, that our preparations for it need structure, intentionality, and purpose.

And how is walking slower a spiritual discipline? Put simply, it gives me practice with waiting. When I walk slowly toward my destination, I must resist the urge to speed up so as to arrive there sooner. Knowing that I could get there quicker and then purposefully delaying my arrival requires patience and a willingness to endure.

The side effect of walking slow is that I get more time to enjoy the way. "Just kickin' down the cobblestones" is a great way of "feelin' groovy," and time is relative, as we all know. Moving faster speeds time up, and moving slowly or stopping altogether stretches time out. Walking slowly, therefore, actually creates more time for my day!

If you've read my last two posts on Advent, you know that I'm a big advocate of truly using the season as a time to prepare for Christmas, and not to rush the miracle. The decorations, the songs, the parties, the lights - all of these are preparatory for the celebration. These preparations are in and of themselves celebrations, of course. But they lead us to the BIG one - the birth of Christ.

So this Advent season, should you find yourself walking somewhere with me, I will beg your indulgence to slow down a bit and linger a bit as we perambulate along. Practice waiting - walk slow.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What ARE we waiting for?

There are at least two ways to say “What are you waiting for?” depending on how you emphasize the syllables. The most common way to say it is to emphasize the syllable “wait” – the resulting expression is intended to impel someone to act, to stop standing around and do something.

But if you emphasize the “are,” the expression has an entirely different meaning. “What are you waiting for?” Expressed this way, the expression is one of expectation. It infers the waiting, and prompts us to think about for what, exactly, we wait.

This question is going to frame my Advent season. What exactly are we expecting to happen? If Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas, for what are we preparing, exactly? What hopes do we have this season?

Am I hoping that nobody sets the Advent wreath on fire this year? Am I hoping that all of the strands of lights in the sanctuary actually light up? Am I hoping that the remodeling project gets done on time and under budget? Am I hoping that all of our Advent activities come off smoothly?

Or am I hoping that a righteous Branch will spring up for David that will execute justice and righteousness in the land? (Jeremiah 33:15) Or am I hoping for a refiner’s fire to purify our offerings in righteousness? (Malachi 3:3) Or am I hoping for the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood to be burned by the coming Prince of Peace? (Isaiah 9:5)

What are we waiting for? What does the birth of Christ truly mean? The season of Advent is the gift God has given us to reflect on these questions.

The days are surely coming …

Don’t rush the miracle …

Monday, November 16, 2009

The War on Advent

I’d like to take a moment and discuss a religio-cultural war in our world, an insidious plot that is threatening to erode the very foundations of the faith. This conspiracy is so deep that NO ONE is talking about it, and only the most intuitive and discerning persons, such as myself, have noticed it. The rest of you who are blind to this war are obviously yourselves unwitting pawns in its prosecution.

I am speaking today, of course, of the WAR ON ADVENT currently being waged by Christians all over our nation!

Those who have master-minded this deviancy are so clever, they manufactured an entire other controversy to distract an unwitting nation from their true agenda. That’s right, the so-called “Christmas Controversy” is nothing but an elaborate smoke screen. It is a “green-and-red herring,” if you will. And it is working!

You see, in fighting against the straw man argument that Christmas is under attack, the anti-Adventers have recruited untold dozens to do their bidding. All of the belligerent calls to wish people “Merry Christmas” no matter what – all of the militant radio stations who begin bombarding us with Christmas music in the middle of October – all of the radical stores setting out their Christmas wares BEFORE Reformation day – it’s all working just as they planned it!

You see, in our effort to counter-attack the entirely make-believe attack on Christmas, we have started celebrating it earlier and earlier, and with more and more fervor. And the Advent-haters love it! Turns out that by early December we’re so sick and tired of the whole yuletide schtick that we just kind of coast through the rest of the time until New Year’s Eve, when we just get wasted and forget what the big deal was all about in the first place.

And what, pray tell, has happened to the season of Advent in the meantime? EXACTLY! We haven’t given it a second thought. Shoot, we haven’t even given it a first thought, truthfully. No prophecies, no waiting patiently for the Lord, no building of expectancy, no time of reflection and renewal. We go straight from Halloween Candy to Christmas Candy, with a brief stopover for pumpkin pie on the last Thursday in November.

Advent is a one candle per week deal, baby! You don’t light them all up at once! One candle for hope … wait a week … one candle for peace … wait a week … on candle for joy … wait a week … one candle for love … wait some more time … then … BAM! Christ shows up in one final candle lit on the wreath. And then you get part of that light onto the littler version of that final candle that you hold in your hand until the room is filled up with everyone’s little bit of Christ’s light and because you have waited for it ….

…because you have waited for it for those long, dark evenings … because you have waited for it over those four sacred weeks … because you have waited for it in prayer and patient anticipation …

…it is a miracle.

What are you waiting for? Truly - do we even know? I believe that there is a reason to wait, and that learning to wait may be one of the most difficult, and the most rewarding, skills we could master. You know that cheesy Christmas t-shirt theology about the "Reason for the Season." Well, there is a reason for the Advent season, as well.


Don't rush the miracle.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Foster Dad's Autumn

He has only had four autumns in his life, and I do not know anything about the first three.

What I know is that this autumn…

He learned about how fun it is jumping in a big pile of leaves.
He learned about grabbing up a big handful of them and tossing them up into the air.
He learned about burying your big brother in leaves and waiting for him to jump out.
He learned about picking up a bunch and rubbing them in your big sister’s hair.
He learned about the rustling sound they make when you run through them.

This was his fourth autumn, and I do not know what will happen for his fifth…
…or his sixth.
…or any of the rest.

All I know is that this autumn, we played in the leaves.

And that will have to be enough.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Our yard is under a blanket. The oak tree out front has let go, and now leaves cover every inch of the yard. This weekend I’ll head out with rake in hand and create enormous piles that the kids will run and jump into a hundred times before we eventually bag them all up and send them away. Next spring, that very same tree will bud tender green shoots that will soon become the leaves my kids will jump into next fall. And so it goes.

A problem with “go and make disciples” as a sole mission for the church is that it is linear, not cyclical. A linear orientation cannot be forced into a reality that is inherently cyclical, that waxes and wanes over time.

The church growth movement illustrated this reality. When the church’s mission was minimized to just increasing numbers, the systemic anxiety increased dramatically. The only direction acceptable was “up,” and the season was most definitely “down.” But rather than acknowledge this as a season and look ahead into God’s preferred future, the church as a system kind of panicked and couldn’t get unstuck from the present.

If you think about it, a whole lot of faith is cyclical. The daily cycle of rising, doing our day, and sleeping again – the weekly cycle of worship, work/school/home, Sabbath rest, and back to worship again – the yearly cycle of Advent to Easter through the year back to Advent. Personally, we cycle in our relationship with God, sometimes growing closer day by day and sometimes experiencing those dark nights of the soul when we feel utterly lost and alone.

Salvation is not a march in a straight line from point alpha to point omega, so why should the church’s mission be? The idea that all the church is supposed to be doing is adding numbers to the list underestimates the mission we are truly supposed to be on. Plus, if all we are supposed to be doing is adding people to our list, how will we know when we are done?

If we think in cycles, we don’t even have to ask ourselves that question. We will be done when God completes us. Our task is simply to be present in the seasons of faith and avail ourselves to what God is doing in the world.

It is November, and we do not lament the leaves’ departure from the tree and frantically scramble to prevent them from falling, then try to invent ways to get younger leaves to attach to the baring branches. We do no such things, because we know it is just a season, and it will run its course, yielding to a new season in time.

But in the meantime we respond appropriately to the current season, and work diligently as that season dictates we should. I’m not advocating passive ambivalence; discipleship is hard work, no matter the season. If I may paraphrase Scripture, there is a time to rake leaves, a time to shovel snow, a time to buy mulch, and a time to pull weeds.

Seems to me the trick for the church is to discern the season and what type of work needs to be done in it, knowing that it will cycle away at some point in God’s timing and a new season will begin.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Congregational Flu Response

I sent this out to the congregation today:

Dear Campbell Church,

A few of you have been curious about what the congregation’s response to the flu pandemic is. Of course, our response is fluid, as the situation evolves. In numerous and ongoing conversations with staff, worship planners, and leaders, our current response is as follows.

Each individual who gathers for worship (or some other meeting) is able to decide for him or herself the level of contact with which he or she is comfortable, including the choice not to gather together at all. Each person’s decision will be respected by others, so that in interpersonal interactions, the one whose comfort level is for the least amount of contact will determine the response.

You could even use this as your conversation starter when you greet someone. You say, “Hi! Are you a hand-shaker?” They say, “Nope, I’m a waver!” You say, “Great! Good morning!” And give them a big friendly wave.

As for me, just so you’ll know: I will greet you however you want to greet. I know that touch is very important for some, and very uncomfortable for others. So if you want to shake my hand, do so. If you want to give me a big hug, do so. Knuckle bump? Groovy! If you want to put your thumbs in your ears, stick out your tongue, and wiggle your fingers at me, go for it! It doesn’t matter; the point is that I want to greet you – I want to see you in worship!

The same principle holds true for Holy Communion, which will be celebrated this week. All of the servers will be healthy and have thoroughly cleaned their hands. And if you are not comfortable coming forward to receive a piece of bread from the loaf, please do not let that stop you from sharing the sacrament with your brothers and sisters. Just come forward, let the servers know you do not care for bread or juice, and then kneel in prayer for a few moments around the table. Or just stay in your seat in an attitude of prayer as we celebrate the sacrament together.

The one who stays in their seat in prayer will be regarded no differently from the one who comes forward with hands open to receive a bite of bread. The point of communion is not the bread and the juice, the point is the grace of God. The point is that I believe with all my heart that God’s grace is there for you whether you take a bite of bread or not!

I hope this clarifies things for you. The bottom line is to find a way to be the church and at the same time be careful with this flu season. And as always, if you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact the church office any time.

Shalom, Andy B.

Does your congregation have a response or policy regarding this flu season? Do you mind sharing it? Please include it in a comment if so.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To Alter What God Has Made Perfect?

Today I read this sentence, “The very idea that man could alter what God has made perfect is ludicrous.”

(Here's the column in full.)

The author, Mike Hall, is the Springfield News-Leader’s “From the Right” columnist. His column today was intended to argue against the climate change (cap-and-trade) legislation now before congress. He was intending to argue that the earth warms itself and cools itself as needed, and that human activity has no impact upon it.

I should say that I love reading conservative columnists. I love to dig into a rational, insightful, well-written point of view that is different from my own that challenges me and makes me think. David Brooks is my favorite, I really like George Will and Kathleen Parker, and I read anything John Danforth writes and wish he would write more. Reading their ideas helps me formulate my own, and I truly appreciate what they have to say.

And I have many conservative friends, and many of you who read what I write on Enter the Rainbow are conservative people, also. I really appreciate your respectful, grace-filled comments over the years that I've written this blog. And so I’d like to have some respectful, grace-filled dialogue about Mike Hall’s idea that I read today.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it one of the fundamental premises of the Christian faith that humanity did, in fact, alter what God created perfect? Isn’t that kind of what we call “sin”?

Is it not the case that God sent Jesus to the world to right the very wrong that is being categorically denied in Hall’s argument? Doesn’t Christian orthodoxy go something like: God created it perfect – we screwed it up – God sent Jesus to make it perfect again?

To be sure, there is “science” on all sides of the global warming conversation. I find myself convinced by the science that says human activity has an impact on the earth’s climate, and so we ought to do all we can to lessen that impact.

And there is also “theology” on all sides of the global warming conversation. I find myself convinced by the theology that says human activity is the result of free will which is itself a gift from God, and so we ought to respond to God’s gifts with activities that care for God’s creation rather than destroy it.

In his column, Hall goes on to argue that passage of the cap-and-trade legislation will drive business overseas, where factories unregulated by the EPA will spew pollution into the air in what he calls “planetary suicide.” So, in his own column he actually contradicts what he has affirmed earlier, and seems to end up saying that humanity actually can alter creation.

(Not to mention that he seems to affirm that the EPA’s regulation of pollution is actually a good thing, which may actually run counter to his position against what he sees as government interference with private business. But I digress.)

In the end then, maybe even Mike Hall doesn’t quite believe his own theology. I happen to believe that it is absolutely true that humanity is quite capable of altering God’s creation. I think that’s actually a pretty good definition for sin, in fact. And salvation is the restoration of God’s creation, setting things in order again, reconciling the world to God.

So what do you think, readers? Does Hall's idea accurately represent theology "from the right?"

And deeper than that: Can / did / does humanity “alter what God has made perfect?”

How do you balance the sovereignty of God with the free will of human beings with regard to environmental issues?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Define "Underdog" ...

2009 Playoff Payrolls:

New York Yankees - $201,449,289 (#1 in MLB)

Los Angeles Angels - $113,709,000 (#6)

Philadelphia Phillies - $113,004,048 (#7)

Los Angeles Dodgers - $100,458,101 (#9)


I'm not saying ... I'm just saying ...

By the way ...

Florida Marlins - $36,814,000 (last)

(The (damn) Yankees payroll is 5.5 times higher than the Marlins.)

And by the way...
Yes, even the Marlins payroll is obscenely high, relative to more substantial things.

followed-up from here

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not Only Did the Chiefs Win Today ...

...but check out this article:

Raiders Achieve First Down
According to referee John Parry, the first down also caught members of the officiating crew off guard. Parry said that when Bush moved the chains, his instinct was to throw an unsportsmanlike behavior flag for taunting.
"Michael just got up off the ground and handed me the ball without trying to provoke anyone," Parry said. "Usually you'll find the Oakland guys are jumping back on the pile trying to jam a finger into someone's eye or just kicking wildly with their cleats."

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Wesleyan Jazz Combo

Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but if you dance to music that only you can hear, other people look at you funny.

It works out better if music accompanies your dance, and it also means that others can dance with you. The accompanying instruments give shape and form to the dance itself; the tempo, rhythm, harmony, and melody guide the movements of the dance. Sure, you might have “a song in your heart” that accompanies your dance, but I’m working a metaphor here.

The metaphor involves a jazz combo, a lead instrument and a rhythm section. The drum set energizes the dance with a swinging rhythm, the bass lays down an upbeat groove, and the piano slaps in some funky chords. With the rhythm section rocking, the lead instrument comes in with the tune and we’re dancing!

So let’s say that the dance is our spiritual life, and the instruments that accompany the dance are the resources that we use to give shape and form to it. Comprising the rhythm section are reason, tradition, and experience. The lead instrument is scripture.

I included this metaphor in my ordination papers, in which I wrote the following.

Specifically, the tradition of the church is a historical measuring system for testing the authenticity of our faith. This does not mean that we do it this way because we have always done it this way, but rather that we acknowledge the debt we owe to generations of faithful witnesses before us whose work for the sake of God’s mission has afforded us the opportunity to be where we are.

But even a scriptural faith tested by the tradition may still be a dead faith if not enlivened by our own experience. In other words, faith has to be relevant, to make a real perceived difference in people’s lives.

And finally, it has to make sense in a reasonable way. This does not discount the supernatural by any means; surely God is capable of working miracles in every moment. But there must be a kind of common sense rationality to the faith that is confirmed in its interaction with other spheres of the human endeavor.
Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience comprise what Albert Outler called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” four sources he identified in John Wesley’s theological process. But Wesley never considered these sources to be like four equal points of a geometric figure. Scripture is always primary, carrying the tune of the song to the accompaniment of the others.

Of course, it is possible to hear a hint of the tune if you listen closely to the rhythm section, and even figure some of it out. Just like it is possible to sense the truth of scripture in the mix of tradition, reason, and experience. To be sure, you can even dance to a drum solo!

But the fullness of the song is best expressed when the full combo is swinging, with the Scripture carrying the tune and reason, tradition, and experience grooving behind it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Feels Like the "First Stone" Was Cast...

I hate blog entries that begin with, “I haven’t written anything here for a while…” so I won’t begin this one that way, although I certainly would have good enough cause.


I was at a Walk to Emmaus this past weekend, and it was about 92% wonderful. Unfortunately, the 8% that wasn’t wonderful was comprised of prejudicial comments made by some leaders of the weekend about people of other races and sexual orientations than themselves. Not all the leaders of course, but it was more than one person, and it happened more than one time.

And now I’m not sure what to do with it. Setting aside for a moment the question of whether such comments are appropriate for a follower of Christ at all, such comments are clearly not appropriate for a Walk to Emmaus, where the theme is all grace, all the time. The comments were made in informal times, not in any of the official programmed moments, but still they dulled the colors of the weekend somewhat.

There’s a stone on my desk with the word “First” painted on it. I got it at my Cursillo weekend, and it reminds me of Jesus’ teaching that only the one without sin is able to cast the “first stone” at another person. Well, it feels to me like the “first stone” was cast this weekend. The word “homo” was used in a derisive and scornful tone, intended to evoke laughter from the group. There were several snide remarks about “that rainbow group” that were intended to compare the Emmaus logo to that of the gay rights movement in a negative and judgmental way. There were several negative comments directed toward Hispanic immigrants, and racially charged comments about “the hood” that were intended to stereotypically portray African Americans.

I confess that I was stunned into inaction, and I should have spoken up right then. But truthfully I was so caught off guard that I couldn’t think of what to say. It was just so unexpected to hear at a weekend like that, and I didn’t want to add to it by drawing extra attention to it, I guess. I decided to let it go and come at it from a positive angle instead by emphasizing as often as I could that God’s grace is there for all, even for us.

Other than those isolated comments, the weekend was wonderful. I loved being able to make some new friends, to offer spiritual guidance to some who are working through some spiritual issues in their lives, to be present and pray with a man who rededicated his life to Christ on Saturday night, and experience the Christian community in action. In no way shape or form do I believe that these comments are a reflection on the Emmaus community as a whole or the Show Me the Way Emmaus group specifically.

And so I would especially like to hear the opinions of people who have been involved with Emmaus weekends, or Cursillo or Camino. What should I do with this? I think it needs to be followed up, but how exactly?

And (because I think it needs to be said again) please be respectful and gracious with your comments, not attacking anyone personally while affirming what you believe. There is a spectrum of beliefs about this topic, and it is possible for good and faithful people to find ourselves in different places.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Turkeys

I was walking in the Nature Center on Friday morning, approaching a point in the path at which a bridge crosses over the water. The bridge crosses at a point where the stream is too wide to be a stream any more but not quite wide enough to be the lake. A little distance from the bridge, two turkeys emerged from the woods to the left of the path up in front of me, turned, and headed for the bridge.

One of the turkeys was about twice as big as the other, and was in the lead. So I assumed I was watching a mama turkey and her adolescent chick. The two strolled leisurely over the bridge, and I followed several yards behind them. It was a sight I had not seen before!

Just then, I saw a jogger on the far side of the water, approaching from the left of the point where the bridge met the land, jogging on the path that runs next to the water there. I wondered if the turkeys noticed her, and in the same thought wondered if she was going to continue jogging along the path or make a right turn and cross the bridge, and in the same though wondered what might happen when she and the turkeys were face to face with each other.

I didn’t have long to wonder, though. She did, in fact, turn onto the bridge, and jogger and turkeys were suddenly nose to beak, about ten yards apart, together on a six foot wide footbridge. Needless to say, all parties were startled!

The moment the turkeys saw the jogger, they took flight. Have you ever seen a turkey fly? It is a truly bizarre spectacle. You watch a turkey fly, and you think, “Hmm. That should not be happening.” Proponents of intelligent design as a scientific theory have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to the turkey, because let me tell you, there is nothing intelligent about the design of a turkey in flight.

They have this big, round, heavy body and skinny little wings that would be so much better suited on a much smaller bird. When they take off, they launch themselves with a spasmodic flurry of flapping and heaving, and in the air their unwieldy bulk hangs down from their frail looking wings like a bowling ball under a paper airplane.

But, in spite of their awkward appearance, turkeys CAN fly – and DO, by the way. Like the two turkeys on the bridge – they took off when they saw that jogger, and in their fear they flew to opposite sides of the water. The baby flew back to the side from which we had come, and the mama flew over to the side to which we had been headed.

The jogger, after regaining her composure, jogged on.

Witnessing these events, I was curious as to what would happen next. Apparently these two turkeys needed to be together, and yet now they were separated by this water that was a bit more than the stream but not quite yet the lake. How would they get together again?

I crossed on over the bridge and turned left down the path along the water. Mama turkey was on the path, about 15 yards along, walking away from me. I followed her, keeping that distance.

As she walked, she clucked. Every few seconds, she made a short, staccato sound as she walked along the path. It wasn’t loud. It was actually quite gentle. But it was steady. It was patient.

And sure enough, a few clucks later, there was a spasmodic flurry from the other side of the water, and baby turkey risked it all, launched itself rather unceremoniously from its roost, crossed the water, and made a direct line for mama. A few seconds later, together again, the turkeys strolled off into the woods together.

More than just an interesting nature anecdote, I think there’s something we can learn here. I’m sure not every single experience in life turns out to be an illustration of our faith, but maybe this one does. Let’s see…

First of all, us turkeys need to be together, too. People like you and me need each other.

And you know, sometimes you look at us people and think, “Hmm. There’s no way one of those would ever be able to fly.” But we CAN – and we DO! We are capable of such extraordinary things.

Sometimes we do extraordinary things when we are startled, when we are scared, and those extraordinary things separate us from each other. One of us flies off one way and one of us flies off the other and there ends up being a great gulf between us.

But we also do extraordinary things when we are longing to be together, when we hear a gentle, patient call that invites us in. We do extraordinary things; we launch ourselves into the air and cross the water so that we can be reunited again.

All the church is really is just a bunch of turkeys doing extraordinary things so that we can be reconciled to God and one another. God’s voice is the gentle, patient cluck that invites us in. Hearing that call, we launch ourselves from our roost to do things no one would ever have thought possible, to love one another as Christ loves.

Us turkeys need to be together.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Churches and Branches and Vines - Oh My!

Let’s talk vines and branches.

With the “body” metaphor, we get the idea that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” But when talking about gardening, you’ve got to deal with the pruning issue. Because, you see, it is possible (and even common) for the vine to say to a certain branch, “I don’t need you,” and the branch is subsequently pruned away.

This pruning happens because the offending branch is somehow threatening the overall health of the plant. The way to keep the plant alive therefore is to cut away the sick part so that the whole plant will flourish.

Oh, how fun it would be to be the gardener! Then it would be up to us which branches needed pruning and which needed to stay connected. The only problem with that is that, in this analogy, God is the gardener. God gets to do the pruning, not us. John 15:1 Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower.”
So it is still true, using the metaphor of the body or of the vine, that one part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you.” A single branch on the vine couldn’t look at another branch and decide to prune it. That’s up to the gardener, not the branches.

Too frequently we (the church) have put ourselves in the place of the gardener, deciding who needs pruning so that the vine can be healthy. The truth is, you and I are simply branches on the vine, as apt to be pruned away as any other branch.

I prefer thinking about it from the flipside – in order to stay healthy and bear good fruit, I had better stay connected to the vine. And consequently, as I am connected to the vine, I am connected to the other branches thereupon. It is from our connectedness that we draw that which sustains our lives.

I am thankful to be a part of a denomination that celebrates connection. It reminds us that we are a part of something transcendent, bigger than us. It calls us to expand our thoughts and extend ourselves outward. Thank God for the connection!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Appeal - A Follow-Up

If you read my last post on Enter the Rainbow but not on Facebook, you missed the 50 comment dialogue that happened there. My post was about Christian unity. The comment thread ended up being about homosexuality, which certainly was not directly responsive to what I had written, but perhaps provided a case study for the point I had actually intended to make.

To be sure, there were several commenters whose remarks were germane to the post itself, but a handful of those commenting were actually responding to the first commenter, Steve. I went to Camdenton High School with Steve – sang in the Bel Canto Singers with him, in fact. I haven’t seen him since then, and only just recently “found” him on Facebook again.

In one of his comments, Steve wrote, “Try reading the scripture and taking it for what it says instead of what makes you feel good.” This statement, of course, did not win him any fans. Because, as soon became apparent, the people who were disagreeing with him had, in fact, read the scripture and were, in fact, taking it for what it says. It just so happens that their take of what it says differs from Steve’s.

Rather than get into the specifics of their conversation, I’d like to remark on the conversation itself, and on the people participating.

One of the first to respond was Clayton, who I went to Northeast Missouri State University with – he was a few years ahead of me in the music department, in fact. He is now a UM pastor, and one of the smartest human beings I know. Clayton and I share the distinctions of being nerds in two separate areas of interest: music and religion!

Clayton’s thoughts were echoed by Cale, with whom I went to college also, but he was a few years behind me – sang in the NEMO Singers with him, in fact (or was it Cantoria by then?) He’s a few years younger than me, and he married his husband (who has almost no vowels in his name, by the way) in California.

Cale was talking back and forth with Cindy, with whom I went to Camdenton High School also, though she was a few years ahead of me – sang in the Bel Canto Singers with her, in fact. She briefly described her religious life in her comments, and I have to say it is fascinating. I’d love to hear more about how she practices her faith.

Cindy was asked a couple of questions by Kory, with whom I go to Campbell United Methodist Church – sing in the praise band with him, in fact. Kory just got married this summer and, in addition to leading the praise band, keeps track of all of our computer stuff at church. He is a poet, and a deep thinker with an artist’s soul.

Steve, Clayton, Cale, Cindy, and Kory – five people from three different chapters of my life, meeting together to talk about their beliefs. Now, Facebook is not going to be the place where we work out all our differences and end up in perfect agreement with each other. And it’s not as if that’s the goal, either.

But I’ve got to say that it was pretty cool to watch that conversation unfold over those three days. It was interesting to note that all the people in that mix are people with whom I have made music. It was a pretty good example of our vibrant, complicated, mystifying, frustrating diversity, actually.

I wish there was enough passion about the issue I was actually writing about to generate 50 comments. I’m going to keep writing about it, keep preaching it, keep living it. The unity of the body of Christ, a unity that transcends difference of opinion, a unity that celebrates diversity rather than fearing it, this unity is desperately needed as an alternative to the bitter divisiveness that seems to dominate our society these days.

Again I’ll emphasize, I hope we don’t blow it!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An Appeal to the Church for Our Troubled Times

There is no organization better suited to respond to the current societal divisiveness than the church. Let’s not blow it.

The bitter “us” versus “them” mentality of so many people these days is directly confronted by the radical unity that Christianity teaches. The modern day equivalent of the “Jew” and “Greek” of Bible times (Galatians 3:28) find themselves inextricably, if a bit uncomfortably, drawn together in Christ. If it is indeed true that God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11), then who are we to do so?

It should break our hearts when we hear what passes for public discourse in our nation today. One of my wife's preshcool kids said to her yesterday, "Obama is a liar." Hmm...wonder where she heard that? And I'm much more upset by a preschool kid saying it than hearing it shouted from the floor of congress, to tell you the truth.

I just learned from my cousin Bryan that, in Germany, there are signs at the crosswalks that encourage grown-ups to cross with the light because it will set a good example for the children watching. Setting aside for a second the glennbeckian propensity to see an evil governmental plot to control our lives, isn't that a pretty good idea? Shouldn't we be behaving so that the example we set is a good one?

As adults should set examples for children, so should the church set the example for society. (It's a metaphor, not an analogy, so don't jump on that.) Simply put, there is no better time than now for the church to model for the rest of the world how people are supposed to get along. If you've read H. Richard Niebuhr, this is the time to bring a little "Christ Transforming Culture" into the mix.

You want to hear something radical? I believe in the devil, and I believe that the devil doesn't really care what we believe, as long as it separates us from one another, and from God. Evil does not manifest in individual person's beliefs; evil manifests in the way that people's beliefs, whatever they are, cause us to distance, then divide, then isolate, and ultimately hate the other.

If ever there was a moment for the church to counteract our societal craziness, it is now. But here is the tricky part - we cannot repay evil with evil, but must counter evil with goodness (Romans 12:17). In other words, the church cannot "go to battle" with divisiveness, for doing so would just add more divisiveness (and the devil would love it). Rather, we must counter cultural divisiveness with Christian unity, a unity that claims and celebrates a rich and vibrant diversity within it.

Christian unity does not ignore difference. It is not "colorblind," a term that I try to avoid using. Rather, Christian unity sees the differences and transcends them. That which unites is God's love shown through Jesus Christ and present in the Holy Spirit, and no earthly force can overcome that. That means that I'm different from you - in a lot of ways - and that's okay.

That's what the church is supposed to be - left/right, women/men, old/young, gay/straight, rich/poor, Royals/Cardinals, short/tall, UMC/AG, this race/that race, this nation/that nation, citizen/immigrant, this/that, blah blah/yadda yadda - and on and on and on. God loves us all; God wants us all to be better people; God offers us all the gift of salvation. To announce and embody this good news in all of its myriad possibilities is why the church exists.

How we treat each other matters. We should neither weaponize our differences nor ignore them. For the church, there is no "us" and "them" - it's all "us!" It's all us in all of our vibrant, complicated, mystifying, frustrating diversity. And it can be such a beautiful thing to behold.

This is our moment, church. Please let's not blow it.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Current Affairs

There are some pretty buzzy political issues out there right now. Let’s see, we’ve got…
- The current administration’s secret agenda to destroy the nation,
- The Sedalia Smith Cotton High School Band’s “Brass Evolution” T-Shirt,
- President Obama’s upcoming speech to school kids across the country,
- The bureaucracy being created to kill all the old people,
- The President’s location of birth (ah, an oldie but still a goodie!),
- Random observations about the health care systems of Canada and Great Britain,
…and a few more that aren’t really coming to mind at the moment.

So I’ve decided that I would like to write about these issues. Which I will do exactly one time then move on to more substantial things.

Which I now have done. And that is that.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Different Flavors of the Same Stuff

If you and I were to meet at Braum’s, you might order strawberry and I might order mint chocolate chip, but we’d both be eating ice cream. We’d just taste different flavors of the same stuff. The same yummy, sweet, delicious stuff!

That’s kind of how I think about diversity in the Church, too – different flavors of the same really good stuff. You might look at things one way, and I might look at things another, but we’re both following Jesus. We’re just trying to live as faithfully as we can from our own perspective.

Several places in scripture, including this week’s text from James 2, remind us that followers of Christ are of one body, and should not show partiality. Romans 2:11 says is most plainly; “For God shows no partiality.” We are not supposed to show favoritism or divide the body into adversarial factions.

There is no “us” and “them” – we’re all “us.”

Nonetheless, there are times that faithful Christians do not see eye to eye. The way we handle that says a lot about us, probably even more than the idea over which we’re disagreeing. We can even disagree about some pretty substantial things; if we can do so with respect and love for one another, we’re going to be okay.

Getting ready for the work God wants us to do involves setting aside the earthly prejudices that we tend to carry. So a part of getting “revved up” for the race we have to run has to be getting rid of preconceived notions about others so that we can truly live as God desires – all us, all the time.

The most powerful symbol of this unity is the communion table, and this week in worship we will celebrate the sacrament together. It is a table that is open to all people, no matter what. All of those superficial things we use to distinguish ourselves one from another in this world are laid aside for a moment around the table of the Eucharist.

I’ll see you around the table!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Guy in the Park, or, The Random Diatribe

I was at the park this morning; the two bigs were off playing and I was standing watch over the two littles, who were just piddling around in the picnic shelter (in spite of the very appealing playground a few yards away, I might add).

A man strolled over, walking his black poodle around the park perimeter. He told me the dog's name. "He likes kids," he declared as the two littles came over and started petting him. "I like the logo on your shirt," he added.

I was wearing an old Saint Paul School of Theology Shirt which has a logo on it that uses the shape of the cross perched atop Kresge Chapel on the campus in Kansas City. So I explained to him that I am a pastor and this is a t-shirt from my seminary.

"What church do you pastor?" he asked. And I told him, "Campbell United Methodist, right up the road."

It was then that I noticed his cap, which identified him as an Ozark Minuteman, which served as a precursor to what he started into next.

What followed was probably a 5 -10 minute diatribe about how pastors of the past would never have stood by and watched while "all of this stuff" is happening to our country, but how fear of losing the tax-exempt status for our congregation prevents us from doing so. "All of this stuff" happening to our country consisted, for him, of pretty much every talking point of the political far right, including the one about Obama forming a kind of private army of some sort which he said that he saw a video of on the internet.

I tried to deflect to more superficial topics, like kids and the dog and the weather - to no avail. My new friend pit bulled the conversation, latching on to his tirade and refusing to let go, following me around the picnic shelter as I chased toddlers in two directions.

And so, what strikes me about the incident is not so much what the guy was saying. Nothing new there. What made an impression on me was how quickly and in what tone of voice he began sharing it with me. It was as if seeing the cross on my shirt indicated to him that I would be in sympathy with his rather grumpy viewpoint automatically. I'm not, but that's not really the point. The point is that he assumed I was.

The things the guy in the park was saying would have been better left to a time when a relationship is established and the conversation partners know each other well. And it would have been more appropriate in a calm, reasonable tone of voice. Rapport like that is what allows for respectful, grace-filled dialogue to happen. The guy in the park took a huge risk, and assumed I was going to agree with everything he had to say - and he thought it was okay to take that risk because I had a cross on my shirt and had told him I am a pastor.

And ironically, it WAS safe for him to take that risk, but not because of the reason he thought. He assumed it was safe for him because I was just as mad as him about "all this stuff" the President is doing. Rather, it was safe because I'm not going to pass judgement on him in any way for what he believes one way or the other. I allowed him to express himself as I would any random stranger. Having no relationship with him, my role was simply to smile and nod. Which I did. A lot.

Of course, I am fully equipped with the knowledge needed to go point-by-point with everything this guy was saying. I've done my reading and I could have responded to him if I had chosen to. And of course, if I knew the guy well and felt comfortable offering my contrasting opinion and could do so in a respectful and calm way, I would absolutely have pushed back a bit. But a random stranger, in the park, me trying to keep track of four kids? I don't think that was the time or place, to say the least.

So I smiled, nodded, and chased the kids around until he felt like he had said what he needed to. Then he walked on and we went over to the slide. And that was that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Promotion Sunday for Grown-Ups?

One of the most important aspects of our faith is growth – ours is not a stagnant condition but a process of continual learning. There is always more to know about God. There is always just a bit closer we can step toward Jesus. Our lives can always be a little more Christlike.

This Sunday at Campbell we will celebrate some of the youngest members of the church family and the teachers who lead them along the first steps of their faith journey. At the 8:20 worship service, we will honor the children’s Sunday School teachers and promote children up to the next grade level of our Sunday School program.

The kids and their teachers will all gather up front of the sanctuary and we’ll pray for them all. Then we’ll all sing together as they head down to the gym for the big promotion! What an exciting day!

No matter how old we are, the development of our faith is key to living the life Christ calls us all to live. Don’t you wish there was a promotion Sunday for grown-ups, too? It seems like there should be some tangible sign or ritual that says, “You have officially completed this level of your spiritual education and are ready to move on to the next. Congratulations!”

Alas, it is a little vaguer than that. After we complete the numbered grades, the ceremonies marking our development are few and far between. It’s not so much that we have less to learn than we start keeping track of it differently.

No, there is no promotion Sunday for grown-ups, but wouldn't it be cool? We'd get called up to the front by our first and last name and the teacher would give us a little certificate or maybe one of those wooden crosses to put in our pocket. The off we would go to that room down the hall that we had always wondered what it was like in there and now we were going to get our chance to see it for ourselves!

Maybe? Anyone with me on this?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life Metaphors

Any and all language about God is metaphorical. And that does not lessen the power of the words we use, merely tempers them a bit. And so whether God is Father or Creator or Mother or Papa or יהוה any of the other numerous possibilities, the best any word can do is describe a tiny bit of the one who is utterly indescribable.

Likewise, we use metaphorical images to describe life. The words we choose to describe the life God gives are powerful, but similarly tempered by their symbolic roles. So if we describe life as a battle against cosmic forces, we don’t mean literally a battle with literal armies lined up on opposite sides of a literal battlefield literally attacking each other. We mean battle as in a struggle, or opposition to a force at work.

There are other metaphors for a life of faith, of course. I have heard it described variously as a race or a dance or a journey, for example. None of these are literal, but supply symbolic meaning to our approach to living.

I happen to believe that any of these other three metaphors are superior to the metaphor of the battle. My last post explained some of the reasons why I think the battle image doesn’t work as well any more, focusing on the “Armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6. I think, essentially, that what the image conveyed in that letter 2,000 years ago doesn’t get conveyed today.

At different times of life, different metaphors work better than others. There are times when my life has felt like a battle, to be sure. But it was always a temporary deal. Like when the thing I was battling was out of the way, I moved on. So I guess I think of it more as an obstacle in the way of my journey than a battle. The devil doesn’t so much fight me as put things in my way.

What does that say about my theology? I’m still thinking on that, but part of what it says is that I really do think about salvation as a way or a journey. I thought about it that way even before I learned enough Wesleyan theology to realize that’s what I thought! Of course the Wesleys used multiple images to describe salvation, but the metaphor of a multi-stage journey toward “perfection” is the dominant one.

So I think of the driving force of faith as an impulse to get somewhere, much more so than an impulse to defeat something. There will likely be metaphorical obstacles to overcome and metaphorical adversaries to fight against as we go, but ultimately we’re doing it because we’re going. The point is not to conquer the enemy; the point is to get to the place where the enemy doesn’t want us to go.

In Ephesians 6, the term “full armor” is used - πανοπλίαν – and it is only used one other place in the entire New Testament. This fact highlights its significant, particular meaning. The soldier must put on the “full armor” specifically contrasted with only partial armor, in order to be fully prepared for battle. The point being that one must be fully prepared for the work to be done.

And so I can convey the same meaning by saying that we need to be fully packed for the journey, not just a water bottle and granola bar for an afternoon hike in the woods, but the back of the mini-van stuffed with every thing we might conceivably need for the two week vacation. And if I can convey the same meaning using a different metaphor, I think that’s okay.

Finally, I just think life these days is too violent to add to it with violent faith images. Recent pictures of people wielding assault weapons at a public rally only serve to solidify that point. Violence has become normal, expected, no big deal. Why add to that with equally violent responses? Shouldn’t people of God offer an alternative? Something different?

We’re not supposed to meet evil with more evil. We’re supposed to meet evil with good. (Romans 12) In The Screwtape Letters (still my favorite C.S. Lewis book), this quote of Luther appears just after the preface: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to the texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” The devil hates joy, and I find that to be much more useful in overcoming those obstacles than anything else.

What’s your favorite metaphor for life? What words do you use most often to talk about living the way God intends that we live? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Full Armor" Image - Still Meaningful?

This week I'm going to preach about being “dressed for success” using a passage from Ephesians 6. Using a word that occurs only one other time in the New Testament, the author exhorts us readers to put on the “full armor” of God. But what kind of armor is this?

Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Spirit? These are the articles of clothing with which we are to gird ourselves in preparation for battle with “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” Um… don’t you have anything more … substantial? Like a thermo-nuclear device, maybe? Shoot, I’d settle for a shirt of chain mail!

The answer, of course, is no. This isn’t real “armor” we’re getting ourselves dressed in; armor is being used here symbolically. This passage is a metaphor for preparing ourselves to live the life God wants us to live, which may prove to be difficult from time to time. The author has taken overtly militaristic imagery and transformed it into what would seem like nonsense to a soldier. Surely a soldier with any sense would rather go into battle with a shield made out of metal or even wood, rather than one out of faith.

But I think that is precisely the point. God gives us what we need to prepare us to live a good life, and much of the time it’s not really what we might expect. Nevertheless, God assures us that what has been given is indeed sufficient, despite our frantic scrabbling for something we think might be more appropriate.


The above thoughts are a part of my newsletter article this week. I always write an article intended to prime the pump for the upcoming worship services, get people thinking, kind of preview coming attractions. Of course, it also reflects what I am thinking about during the week as well.

I have been thinking a bit about militaristic images in scripture, kind of as a tangent to the central theme of the week. War is something I have changed my mind about many times throughout my life. And using militaristic images to talk about faith has been something I have usually avoided, or at least not emphasized, because of this waffling.

Listening to people talk about their experiences Guatemala, ravaged by war over the past several decades, really impacted my ideas about war. Serving as a pastor in Warrensburg, with several Air Force personnel and their families in the congregation helped to shape my thoughts as well. And good friendships with a few people who have served in the Middle East and their families have also informed my opinions.

One thing that is certain: war in 2009 is so different from war in the ancient near east as to be almost unrecognizable. A soldier described in the Bible and a soldier serving today in Afghanistan have many things in common, to be sure, but also huge differences. For one thing, the level of destruction that is possible today would have been unthinkable then. Also the amount of automation along the front lines is obviously an enormous difference. And changes in communication and transportation have flattened the world so that every local conflict is instantly global.

Because of these differences, I am hesitant to incorporate militaristic imagery when talking about faith. It's just not the same world now as it was then. And out of my deep respect for people who serve in the military, and my sincere desire to support them and their families, I choose not to use military metaphors to make a theological point. I even sort of regret my off-handed attempt at humor in my newsletter article above, mentioning a thermo-nuclear device to illustrate my point. That was pretty insensitive of me, and I am sorry.

Like I said, this is a topic that I have changed my mind about before, and I'm sure I will again. I'd be interested to know what y'all think. If you feel so inclined, leave a comment and let's discuss it. Does the militaristic imagery in scripture still convey the meaning it was intended to convey?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eternal Life

I’ve been thinking about life eternal, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon. What does it mean? What does “everlasting” feel like?

I don’t think eternal life begins when we die, because if it had a beginning, then it wouldn’t be eternal. Eternal not only means “always will be” but also “always has been.” Shane Claiborne wrote about this in “The Irresistible Revolution,” saying that he is convinced “Jesus came not just to prepare us to die but to teach us how to live.” Eternal life is an ongoing something that we enter into when we decide to follow Jesus.

I’ve been contemplating how this idea weaves in to the social issues around the beginning and ending of life. For example, one of the loudest groups in the milieu believes that life begins at conception. While biologically this may be true, theologically I do not believe it. God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jeremiah 1:4) not “At the moment of your conception I knew you…” Life everlasting has no beginning; it is like entering a flowing stream somewhere in the middle.

Similarly, Paul writes that “we will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). I do not believe that ceasing to function biologically is the same as ceasing to be. I do not know how I personally will feel about it when a loved one is close to death, or when I am. I’d like to think that I will be able to face it unafraid. But I have numerous experiences in ministry with people who are dying and with their families, and it is a holy time in which you get a little glimpse in the direction of infinity.

And while I don’t know exactly how to express the idea, because all language is metaphor, all of this means that saying “yes” to the life everlasting that Christ offers should therefore impact us in the present. Followers of Christ should live differently, better. In other words, I’m no expert on the “everlasting” part, but I’ll do my best to live the here and now like God wants me to.

Doesn’t it seem like sometimes we spend a lot of energy waiting around for heaven? As Shane Claiborne puts it, “Christians pretty much live like everybody else; they just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.” I don’t believe that we are supposed to live however we want and then let God sort it all out in the end. I believe we are supposed to live here and now as if the there and then has already come. Why else would be pray for God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven?

The life God wants us to live will be easy then, because God’s reign on earth will be fulfilled and God’s law will be written on all hearts. And what a wonderful party that will be! But while we wait for it, we are supposed to bring that life to life right now, and that’s not easy. In fact, it’s amazingly difficult.

Kind of like it was for Jesus. Jesus came to tell us that God’s reign on earth was among us, not in the far-off future, and certainly not in any earthly authority. And not only that, he came to embody that heavenly reign on earth in his very self. And it was hard work. You might say he worked himself to death.

Have you ever thought about how much in this world would change if Christians really lived the way Jesus says we should? What would it look life if we truly believed that we have been given life everlasting? How would you respond? How would you change?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stuff Swirling

The only things I have written in the past ten days have been emails and newsletter articles. Even my sermon last Sunday was unwritten; I had the outline in my mind, a few key transition phrases, and that was about it. It has been a very active couple of weeks. Here's the things, in no particular order:

A major staff transition is underway. I had to call the child abuse/neglect hotline after speaking with a friend about a very upsetting situation. I was in charge of setting up and facilitating an online meeting held Thursday morning for a group of ministers across the state. An inspiration struck me and I started writing a Christmas musical for children. Our niece and nephews were in town for a few days’ visit and we went to Silver Dollar City during the day Friday. I had my 20th High School Reunion on Friday evening and Saturday. And then I went to a wedding Saturday late afternoon.

It was an unbelievable week.

So I didn't write anything. But if I had, it was going to be about the responses I got to two questions I posed on my Facebook status last week. Tuesday I asked, "Does the fact that different Gospels tell the story of Jesus differently bug you?" Wednesday I asked, "Does the fact that today, different Christians interpret the story of Jesus differently bug you?"

(Thursday, Clayton asked, "Does the fact that today, Andy Bryan did not pose a new "bug you" question, bug you?" Which I thought was very helpful, thank you Clayton.)

The responses were fascinating. It definitely elicited some thoughts, and some people wrote at length. My initial impetus for asking the questions was preparing for a sermon about Holy Communion using the Gospel According to John as the text, which is a bit odd because John doesn't mention the "Last Supper" in the way that the synoptics do.

But that moment passed and I don't really have anything interesting to say about that.

Now I have a lot of other stuff swirling in my brain and way too much to say about any of it.

I could write about what happens when you tell people with whom you graduated 20 years ago that you are a pastor. I could write about re-envisioning children's ministry in a time of transition. I could write about the relief of hearing that a child I thought may be in danger is in a safe place. I could write about the impulse to create something, how it hits you and what you have to do to scratch the itch when it comes because it simply will not be ignored.

Or I could just write about all the things I might possible write about and actually say nothing. Which is what I have done. And that's all there is to that.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Love Equals Stuff? and "Coraline" Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

True Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Doubt and Faith

Faith in God.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Orbiting the Giant Hairball - Thumbs Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Back Home Again

What a great vacation!

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

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

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

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

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