Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year Resolutions

In 2011, I have a few things that I am going to resolve to do.

1) When it comes to the health of my mind/body/spirit, I am going to adhere to the advice my 93 year old grandmother gave me this week. “Always remember to pray. Work hard. And take good care of your kids.” She told me this as we visited her in the nursing home, Erin and I sitting on her bed and Nanny in her chair, facing us. There were tears in her eyes (and ours), and we held each other’s hands as her simple, profound wisdom was spoken.

That advice kind of epitomizes the way Nanny lives her life, too. And her approach to living has served her well for nine decades, so I suppose we might do well to adopt it. “After all I’ve been through,” she told us, “I don’t really know how I’m still here.” And she paused. “I guess it would be better to say I don’t really know why. Why me?” And she paused again, and kind of looked off into space for a few seconds. “But,” she shrugged and smiled, “here I am, anyway.”

2) When it comes to church, I am going to enjoy the experiencables, recount the describables, and avoid obsessing over the measurables.

- There are measurables, like how many people attend worship every week or how many participate in a faith development class or how many go on a mission trip or how many professions of faith are made, and so forth.
- There are describables, like the layout of a building or the flow of a worship service or the goal of a mission project or a Bible study lesson plan, and so forth.
- And there are experiencables, aspects of a congregation that you cannot hope to measure or adequately describe, but must be felt first hand.

All are important, but they are not equivalent, and furthermore I have consistently placed a higher value on the measurables than the other two. That ends in 2011. I do not think it is even worth trying to rank them in any way; each has a distinct and inherent value. And so I resolve to simply enjoy the moments that can only be experienced to be appreciated, talk and write extensively about those moments that can and should be described, and allow the things that can be measured to be just one among several ways to describe the health of the congregation.

3) In my personal life, getting specific, I am going to
a) Take a hike in the woods once a week.
b) Audition for (at least) two shows at Springfield Little Theater.
c) Sit down at the piano to compose for (at least) three hours a week.
d) Read good books instead of watching junky television shows.

These three resolutions seem to me to be a pretty good start for the new calendar year. Flipping the calendar is kind of arbitrary, just another number on just another page of just another calendar. And so many “New Year Resolutions” tend toward the selfish end of things, intended to impact no further than our own selves.

But this date does offer a chance to reflect and renew, and resolve to become better people, and that’s not a bad thing. I hope that our resolutions this year will be more than just a financial boon for fitness clubs, programs to help you quit smoking, and the latest greatest weight loss diet plan. I hope that they will really be geared toward living better lives in community with one another, and becoming the people God wants us to become.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I Have a Superpower!

I would like to take a moment to apologize to everyone.

Isn’t it strange how we say “I would like to take a moment to…” do something as the lead-in to doing it, instead of just doing it? I mean, why not just go ahead and do it, then?

Okay. Everyone, I am so, so sorry.

Let me clarify that a little bit. I don’t mean everyone that I personally have offended or angered or injured; that list would be extensive in and of itself. No, I mean everyone. Every single person in the world. I am sorry, everyone.

Everyone who is angry or bitter or frustrated, I want you to know how sorry I am. Whatever it was that caused you to be so, I’m sure felt really rotten at the time, but ask yourself, is it really worth it? Look, I don’t know if it will do any good, but for what it’s worth, I am sorry. On behalf of whoever it was that ticked you off, allow me to apologize.

I have encountered a number of people lately seem to be just a nudge away from an outburst. Like just a little inconvenience or tiny insignificance gets elevated and escalated way out of proportion and elicits a stringent rant or some hurtful words or a generally grumpy demeanor. And after than, good things rarely happen; in fact it usually gets worse from there.

So I have decided to take all of the blame for everything. All of that negative energy you currently have directed at the government or your boss or your colleagues or your pastor or someone in your family or whoever it might be, send it my way. I apologize for everything rotten that is happening to you. Really. I’m sorry.

See, I’ve got this mysterious, mind-boggling superpower. It gives me the ability to take all that is bad and absorb it into pure goodness. It empowers me to take a hit from someone's frustration and flip it over so that it comes back as contenment. It allows me to do battle against bitterness and emerge into abiding joy. It equips me to engage rampant self-righteous indignation and transmogrify it into sweet shalom.

The superpower is called Advent. Who would dare deny the awesome power of Advent? Advent allows me, an otherwise normal, unassuming, we might even say mild-mannered person, to accomplish supernatural feats of hope and peace and joy and love. No, I cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I can smile at a stranger while I help her lug her stroller off the elevator as she struggles with her baby and the bags in her arms. And stuff like that.

And here’s the great news: this superpower is available to everyone! That’s right, you heard me. Every single person in the world can be a superhero with the power of Advent at your disposal. There are a number of ways to gain access to this power – going to worship at your church during this season, attending a kids’ Christmas program, telling the Christmas story to a group of preschoolers, volunteering at a local food pantry, giving generously to help someone in need, sitting silently in a room illuminated only by your Christmas tree lights … there are a whole bunch of ways to acquire the power of Advent.

And so, family, friends, colleagues, Christian brothers and sisters, random people reading this post for some reason, I say to you all: access the superpower of Advent! It truly is an amazing thing to behold. And if we do, before we know it, it might just change the world.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Signifying Something

This week my newsletter article said:

A large percentage of our lives are directed by signs. Street signs tell us where we are, traffic signs tell us how to act toward other drivers, and businesses use signs to lure us toward purchasing their products. Gigantic billboards alert us to nearby attractions we might want to check out and once we arrive, the “Open” sign on the door will tell us if the place is available to us or not.
A sign is a signal for something else, and as such a sign is always referring away from itself. The point of any sign is not the sign, but rather the point is to indicate the presence of another. When a baseball catcher gives the sign, the play is not over but rather has just begun; the sign is given to indicate the type of pitch that will follow.
Isaiah 7 indicates that the Lord will give a sign: a young woman who is with child, a son who will be named Immanuel. Looking back at this prophecy through what we know of history, it is simple to associate this image with the birth of Jesus. In fact, Matthew quotes this prophecy in his birth narrative.
God’s presence is “Giving the Sign” this week. And it is a much holier, much more meaningful sign than any of the myriad of signs that direct us through our days. And it is much, much more important to be guided by THIS sign, God’s sign, the young woman about to have a baby, than by any other sign we might run across.
It’s all about the presence – Giving the Sign.

...and my further speculation is:

Yes, it IS easy to recognize that the sign Isaiah mentions is a sign of the incarnation. When we already know the next chapter of the story, it is easy to see how the current chapter of the story leads in that direction.

But what if we didn't know it? What does the sign mean for people who don't already know the next chapter, or is it only valuable for people who already believe in Jesus? Or to think about it a bit differently, what was the sign for people who lived before the birth of Jesus?

This is a specific prophecy about a specific historical situation. The story is paralelled in 2 Kings 16, and has to do with the reign of Ahaz in Judah. Ahaz was not a good king, and when he perceived a threat from two rival nations, he sought an alliance with Assyria. Now, what he probably shoulda done was trust in the Lord, and Isaiah's job was to tell him that.

"Ask for a sign," said the Lord to Ahaz. "I'll show you whom to trust."

"I'd rather not," responded Ahaz, trying to sound pious. "I don't want to put you to the test." But what he was probably thinking was, "O crud! If I ask for a sign, then God will show me one, since that's just the kind of thing God would do. Then, I'd be pretty much screwed."

"You are a moron," said Isaiah. "So God's going to give you a sign anyway. And this is it:

"A young woman is going to have a baby with a deeply symbolic name: God-is-with-us. And before that baby is old enough to know right and wrong (that is to say, pretty soon) the delicacy of curds and honey will be available to him, because the foreign armies in the land will no longer be a threat.

"Oh and by the way, you want Assyria? God will give you Assyria, all right! Only its not going to be an alliance you get; it will be a conquering army that will turn your beautiful fields into thorn bushes, and only a small remnant will remain alive."

The sign of the young woman about to have a baby, then, meant something to the people in that time, and should not be voided of that meaning completely. Clearly it is a Messianic prediction, but the fact that the sign points to the birth of Jesus does not mean it cannot point to other things, too.

- A reminder of God's presence even in times of trouble.
- The assurance that trouble is fleeting, but God's presence lasts beyond it.
- An admonition to trust in God, and God alone, for help in times of trouble.

I do wonder how often God sends us signs that we fail to see. But now I wonder how often God sends us a sign that we do in fact recognize, but we misinterpret because we think we already know what it means. And maybe the sign really does mean that, but does that fact necessarily mean the sign might not signify something else, as well?

My prayer this season is to remain open to all of the possibilities contained in each and every sign that God is sending, and to avoid limiting what God is trying to say by trying to squeeze it through my own narrow perspective.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

What is the opposite of Joy?

What is the opposite of joy?

Misery? Sorrow? Grief?

Leslie Weatherhead said, “The opposite of joy is not sorrow. It is unbelief.”

I read somewhere that the opposite of joy is fear.

My cousin Matt said that the active form of joy’s opposite would be hate.

Isaiah 35:1 =
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

So, is the opposite of joy “wilderness”?

When I posted the question on Facebook Wednesday afternoon, there were 11 unique responses in 35 minutes. And the words people offered were very different – misery, sorrow, summer, despair, dissolution, sadness, loneliness, anguish, apathy, emptiness, and complacency. (I think the “summer” response was supposed to be a joke.) I also liked Ed’s response, “A week without church.”

It is fascinating that so many different words were offered by different people. That says to me that “joy” is a deep and multi-faceted idea, open to a wide range of interpretations. See, I’m thinking about the opposite of joy as a means to understanding joy itself. For example, if the opposite of joy is “sorrow” or “sadness,” are we saying joy the same as happiness? Surely not, if what we mean is the superficial feeling of momentary pleasure that we call happiness sometimes, but maybe so if we’re talking true happiness, which then begs the question, what makes happiness “true?”

“Apathy” and “complacency” are kind of in the same category; a neutral and uninspired approach to life. “Emptiness,” “loneliness,” and “dissolution” are similar. “Misery” and “despair” each have a hopeless, lethargic feeling, whereas “anguish” seems to be more active.

If none of the words my Facebook friends suggested are precisely the opposite of joy, it can certainly be said the joy does not include any of these things. None of these are ingredients in the recipe for joy. But are their opposites?

Apathy’s opposite is ardor or fervor, or maybe passion.
Complacency has a lot of meanings, but would awareness maybe be its opposite?
Emptiness, loneliness, and dissolution are opposed by fullness, relationship, and completeness.
For misery and despair we might go with delight or maybe hopefulness.
And anguish’s opposite is something like comfort or solace.

Mashing all of that together, joy might be an ardent awareness of the fullness of life that instills solace and hopeful delight.

So, how does that work for you?

Monday, December 06, 2010

At Halftime of Advent

Entering the third week of Advent, I find that I have been given an opportunity to pause and reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Never mind that the opportunity has been given to me by the cold I caught, as my body told me loud and clear, “Slow down a bit, I can’t quite keep up with you.”

Regardless of the source of this gift, I am taking the morning to just think about the phenomenal congregation called Campbell United Methodist Church, and the amazing things that I have witnessed in the last couple of weeks. Powerful worship; innovative and interactive seasonal devotions; generous alternative gift giving; beautiful and creative decorating; dedicated and diligent children, youth, and their amazing adult volunteers; hard-working singers and instrumentalists making extra preparations; dozens of disciples engaged in special mission and service in Springfield and beyond. There have been baptisms to celebrate, people becoming members of the congregation, generous gifts given to Imagine and our United Methodist apportionment, and so much quiet, behind-the-scenes servanthood that I couldn’t even begin to attempt to list it all.

All of that is layered on top of the vital, ongoing ministries of the congregation that comprise the three stairways in the pattern of discipleship – Live, Grow, and Share. In the midst of the Advent celebration, we continue in worship, faith development, fellowship, mission and service, generosity, and hospitality, walking the six practices of discipleship in their ever deepening pattern.

And all of that is just the first half of the season; the second two weeks of Advent and the twelve days that make up the season of Christmas are still ahead! I encourage you to pause and reflect every now and then, and please do not wait until you have caught a cold to do so! And take a look at the calendar of the congregation for the next few weeks, to participate in the wonder and mystery of this holy season, celebrating the active presence of God at work all around us.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

More Thoughts on Measuring Church Stuff - What About the DS?

Yesterday, Bishop Schnase wrote a post in which he gave his responses to the recent "Call to Action" report done in the UMC. In it, he observes that
Many things in ministry are measurable – attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, contributions, etc. On the other hand, much of the fruit of ministry is immeasurable and beyond our capacity to quantify and report. But this doesn’t get us off the hook and does not release us from the obligation to focus on fruit. We should use “measurables” where we can, and use “describables” where we cannot measure, and hold each other accountable for fruit. Most importantly, the recommendation [of the recent "Call to Action" report] says we must act on this information and adapt to better fulfill the mission.

I appreciate this perspective, and I added it to the mix of recent posts that pertain to this topic. Like this one and this one for example - there are TONS online right now.

Describables are subjective, and so open to interpretation. It seems to me that accountability for a subjective perception is very tricky. It requires a level of trust within a relationship that allows for complete transparency and honesty. I feel personally that Melissa and I have that kind of relationship with our District Superintendent (DS), Dwight Chapman. We trust him and he trusts us, and we know that as negative issues arise that need to be addressed, he holds us accountable respectfully and with much grace and dignity.

At the same time, I know that some of our colleagues, for whatever reason, do not feel like they have that relationship with their DS. And absent that relationship, accountability seems to fall exclusively onto the measurables, regardless of the (perceived?) describables.

How can the UMC release our Superintendents so that they can develop more of those trusting, open, and honest relationships with pastors?

How can we create a distinctive UMC ethos that allows for itinerant preachers to describe the describables to a DS, who will then in turn share them with a Bishop, in such a way that the health and vitality of local congregations continues to flourish?

And finally, is there a place for "indescribables" in assessing a congregation? As cliché as it may sound, aren't there truly some things you cannot describe, but must experience in order to fully appreciate? Aren't there some facets of congregational vitality that "you know it when you see it," and the best way to assess it is to go there and participate in it?

I have been fortunate in my ministry. I have served with Superintendents with whom I felt a good rapport and a healthy trust. But I have heard enough anecdotal evidence from colleagues to know that my story is not universal. And to be fair, if a DS has to go to 50-plus congregations in order to sample the describables, let alone experience the indescribables, that takes up an entire year of Sundays!

As usual, I am just kind of musing here. Thinking as I type, if you will. So I hope that you read it in that frame of mind, and respond accordingly. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What's Going On Here?

Here is some musing about some congregational dynamics I've seen this year. For those of you who dig this kind of stuff, I welcome your feedback. For those of you who don't, you can probably skip this post altogether - but give it a chance because I really do want to hear from people to get responses and reactions!

So far in 2010, there have been 65 new members of Campbell United Methodist Church. 26 of those have been profession of faith, meaning people who were not members of a church anywhere and so were not simply transferring their membership from one congregation to another. 13 of those 26 were in this year's confirmation class.

I am so happy to be able to share that. To me that says that 65 people felt a deep enough connection with God at Campbell UMC to want to become a part of this phenomenal community. To me it says that 26 people who had no spiritual home found one. (And when you think that some of those who transferred membership may not have been active in the congregation in which they were members, that's an even higher number.)

At the same time, this year's average worship attendance is probably going to end up being 25-30 or so lower than last year's, barring an unprecedented December turnout. Our average attendance was 535 per week last year, and may end up being somewhere just above 500 this year.

I've been puzzling over these numbers for days. I try not to focus exclusively on head counts when discerning congregational health, but this time they have kind of caught my attention, and I'm wondering what, if anything, they reveal about the congregation.

A big number of new members, a big number of people who made profession of faith, mixed with a lower average worship attendance - what does it indicate?

1) People are joining but then not coming to worship.
2) The number of people who stopped coming to worship this year is approximately 90, accounting for 60ish new folks plus 30ish lower average attendance.

There may be a few people for whom the first option is descriptive, but not very many. So in general, number one is not the case, which means something like option two must be taking place. Then the question is "Why."

People who have moved away or died this year account for some of those 90. I don't know exactly how many that is, but it is not 90. (In fact I just sent an email to our Membership Coordinator asking her for that number, so I'll know soon!) Accounting for those people, that still leaves a significant group who have simply stopped coming to worship.

Here are my thoughts so far...

Melissa and I have been serving as the pastors here for two and a half years now. Average worship attendance was 510 in 2008, then 535 in 2009. Is it as simple as "The honeymoon is over?" There is no longer any buzz about "the new pastors," which has led to the disappearance of 90ish people from worship?

We have been consistently preaching the need to be outwardly focused this year, affirming repeatedly that being the church is about more than just caring for our own needs and wants. We have been exhorting people to give, reach out, serve, take risks, be disciples. Could it be that this message has "turned off" a group of people who would rather not disrupt their own comfort levels? Or maybe have we couched this message in too harsh a tone, such that it came across as scolding rather than encouragement?

This year, we have decided that we can no longer be financially faithful if we carry a huge debt and an impending facility burden, so we launched a major capital campaign called "Imagine" to address these issues. Are people exhausted by the thought of the effort it will take to get back on top of our financial situation and would just rather not deal with it?

We have tried to affirm a distinctly Methodist identity, partly by nurturing our connectional relationships, including increasing the priority of our apportionment. Is the United Methodist apportionment too deeply misunderstood, so that this emphasis has been resented? Is it just hard to really be truly Methodist in the religious ethos created by the presence of the Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, and the heavy influence of the Southern Baptist church in this area?

There are a number of gigantic churches in Springfield that put on excellent worship services that look a lot like performances of professional rock bands with a full compliment of technical gadgets and gimmicks and draw huge numbers of people every single week. We don't do that at Campbell. We have intentionally tried to emphasize that worship is not a performance for an audience, but a participatory encounter with God. Is it because we don't advertise "face melting lasers" in our worship services that people have stopped coming?

I don't know about any of these possibilities; they represent a few areas of pondering that have been rattling around in my head as I've thought about these numbers. They are just honest speculations about possibilities with no clarity or direction. I don't know if a clear answer will ever fully emerge, either. It may just be what it is.

And so,
If you are a part of Campbell, I would love to hear your feedback to these numbers, and your thoughts about why.

If you are not a part of Campbell, I would love to hear if this experience resonates with your own in any way.

Thanks for helping me think through this stuff!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hope, Seen and Heard

The season of Advent has begun, and I couldn’t be any more excited! This is the fortieth Advent of my life, and yet I am discovering new things this year, just like every year. Such is the mystery of this season; God reveals new understandings and insights, no matter how many previous Advents you have experienced.

On my fortieth Advent, I am learning more about the effects of God’s presence on my attitude. Or maybe I should say, I am learning that when I am able to recognize God’s presence around me, it really affects my outlook, demeanor, and state of mind. I find myself smiling more for no apparent reason. I hear a Christmas song that in previous years I may have thought to be a cheesy ball of schlock, and I actually begin to tear up a little bit. You know, stuff like that.

And so I ask, is it because it is Advent and God is at work on me in some deep and powerful way, or is it because I am forty and getting sentimental in my middle age?

Who knows? As the prophet Isaiah says, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” Because let me tell you, if we did that we’d be in pretty big trouble, wouldn’t we? Our eyes see some pretty discouraging things; our ears hear some ugly stuff. If that were the limit of our perception, there would be no hope whatsoever.

But God has given us other senses with which to perceive the Divine Presence, spiritual senses that are tuned in to God at levels both underneath and above our consciousness. And that gives me hope.

Too often we limit our perception to what our eyes see or what our ears hear. Actually, we frequently limit it more than that. A lot of the time, we limit our perception to what someone else tells us it is. I mean, it IS easier that way, after all. A lot less thinking for myself.

But the perception of the one described in Isaiah 11 is informed by something deeper than mere physical senses - namely, God's righteousness (Heb. tsedeq). Perception shaped by God's righteousness leads to a special consideration for the poor and the meek, and a radical transformation of the world such that predator and prey dwell together in peace. Simply put, you just don't see things the same way anymore.

This Advent, may we all see and hear with the spiritual senses that God awakens within us. May righteousness be our filter as we wait for the coming of Emmanuel.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Peace Out

As the season of Advent begins, I've been pondering some things.

Is it possible to “fight for peace”?

Can an armed force ever truly be called “peacekeepers”? Or we might ask, is what they are keeping really peace?

It is said so often that it has almost become cliché to say that God’s peace is more than just the absence of conflict. Shalom is life without fear, a way of being that is comprised of justice and mercy, grounded in the everlasting love of God, cultivated in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and manifest in the person of Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

In our human fallibility, we tend to equate peace with everyone pretending to get along with one another. But that’s not peace. There’s more.

You know those family gatherings where there you avoid broaching certain topics because you know the ensuing conversation is not going to be pretty? And then you think that, if you can just avoid the given topic for a couple hours, it will all be over and you can go home? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about … well, that’s not peace. Even if everyone is pretending to be cheery, you know you’re all thinking about the thing you’re not going to be talking about, wondering who will slip up and say something first, and then how the lovely dessert that Aunt Ethel worked so hard on will just be ruined, thanks a lot you.

No, pretending to be cheery for Aunt Ethel’s sake is not peace. Peace is the way that you handle the issue, not the resolution. Peace requires you to address the conflict with love, understanding, respect, and graciousness. You might resolve it, you might not. That’s not the point. The point is in the way you approach it.

Expand that example outward to talk about churches, or communities, or nations. What if we reconceived everything, to think of peace as the way we approach any given situation, rather than the resolution of the situation one way or the other. How would that be? What would that look like?

Beating swords into plowshares would be more than just pretty poetry, it would be a weekend activity. There would be “Spears Into Pruning Hooks” courses offered at High Schools all over the world. War would be something that we learn about in history books, not something we learn how to do in combat training.

Peace within one’s self – peace in our personal relationships – peace in our communities – peace in our world. God’s peace is a way of living that ought to impact every level of life. If we are serious about the presence of God being everywhere, all the time, we need to reflect that in our actions, everywhere and all the time.

(btw, cool Advent Stuff here - Its All About the Presence)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Thoughts on Growth

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”

To grow up into Christ means to become more and more Christlike in the things we say and do, to become more and more like Christ in who we are. There are many ways to express this idea in scripture, including clothing ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), being crucified with Christ so that Christ can live in us (Galatians 2:20), and letting the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

Growth is a central emphasis of Wesleyan theology. In a sermon about Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” Wesley asks, “Are you transformed, by the renewal of your mind, into the image of him that created you? Then you cannot be conformed to the present world. You have renounced all its affections and lusts. Are you conformed to the world? Does your soul still bear the image of the earthly? Then you are not renewed in the spirit of your mind. You do not bear the image of the heavenly.”

To be transformed into the image of God is a daunting thought, isn’t it? For Wesley, humanity is created in the image of God, but sin has caused the distortion of that image. Thus, salvation is the gradual process of formation that renews that image within us. The process is known as “sanctification,” a movement that is empowered by grace and shaped by our participation with God in the process itself. It is a cooperative effort that leads us to Christian perfection, being so completely filled with God’s love that sin no longer has any place in our lives.

“…into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped,…promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

As personal growth happens, the community grows also. It is impossible to separate one from the other. Scripture contains many different expressions of this truth, also. The most familiar might be the metaphor of the body that is comprised of many members (Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:12). The community of faith is continually instructed to build one another up, to encourage one another. Acts 2 describes an initial church that shared “all things in common.”

To borrow an ancient analogy, if I am standing a great distance away from another person, and we both take a step toward the same point, we will end up a bit closer to one another, also. So it is in our spiritual growth; as we draw closer to Christ, we draw closer to one another at the same time. When we move toward a common destination, we get closer to each other no matter from where it is we start.

I think Jesus was alluding to this when he responded to the question about the greatest commandment. Having been asked to name one single commandment that would trump all the rest, Jesus proceeded to offer two: Love God and love your neighbor. He even went as far as to say that the two were similar, that they closely resembled one another. 1 John says it even more directly. If you say you love God but do not love other people, you are a liar.

And so it seems to me that discipleship growth has to be both personal and communal. The church practice that focuses on the personal is “Faith Development” and the church practice that focuses on the communal is “Fellowship.” Healthy discipleship means intentionally seeking growth opportunities in these two ministry areas.

Intentionality is important. I am not describing random tidbits that we pick up here and there. That’s always fun, and a good thing, when you just happen to hear something new, something you hadn’t thought of before or had never heard before. It’s almost always a good thing to meet a random stranger and strike up a pleasant conversation with them while waiting for the bus or standing in line at the store. Healthy discipleship calls for intentional growth.

And so, in examining your own discipleship it is wise to ask yourself what specific efforts you are making to grow each day, each week, and throughout the year. In terms of Faith Development, what books are you reading, what class(es) are you attending, what online resources are you exploring, what Bible Study(-ies) are you participating in, and so forth? In terms of Fellowship, what special church events have you attended, what conversations have you had with other disciples in your community, what new friendships have you developed, what longtime friendships have you nurtured?

And from a congregational perspective, what opportunities are being offered for Faith Development? Is there a variety of classes available, at a variety of times? Is the content of what is being offered appropriate and conducive to healthy spiritual growth? Is there a good congregational website that connects people to good online content? Is there a library of resources readily available for people in the congregation to seek out that personal growth?

And in terms of Fellowship, does the congregation value community free time in which people are able to simply be together for no other purpose than to nurture their relationships? Are there special events in the calendar planned to allow for people to really get to know one another? Do the administrative meetings of the teams and committees include times of relationship building and development of trust for one another?

Growth is always an important part of healthy discipleship. Sometimes it is hard; we seem to grow in fits and spurts. Sometimes we slip backwards a few steps before finding our footing and moving forward again. Some seasons feel totally static, like our spiritual lives have been somehow immobilized. This is all natural, and it happens to every Christian disciple from time to time.

The idea is to affirm the importance of intentional growth for Christian disciples, both personally and communally. It may not happen as smoothly as we would like, but somehow, when we put ourselves in places that are conducive to growth, we often discover that we grow. Imagine that!

Is the pattern of your life conducive to growth? How do you need to adjust it so that it is?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Election Season Wish

Here's the campaign speech that I keep waiting to hear...

"Hello, my name is (Name) and I am running for (office).

I would like to represent you because I care deeply about our community, our state, and our nation. I want everyone to live the best life possible, and be given every opportunity to flourish. I have a heart for public service, I have some thoughts about how our policies could be structured in such a way that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will be assured for all. And here they are:

(Insert accurate description of entire platform here.)

Furthermore, I believe that there is a clear choice to be made in this election between me and (opponent or opponents). However, I know that my opponents are pretty much just like me in that they too care deeply about our community, our state, and our nation. I truly believe that they want people to live the best lives possible, and be given every opportunity to flourish, just like I do. They also have a heart for public service, and some thoughts about how policies could be structured to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But I’ll let you ask them about those.

Because see, there are some things that I’m just not going to do during this campaign.

The first thing that I will not do is draw caricatures of my opponent’s ideas and compare them to my own. That’s called a “straw man” argument, and I’m just not going to do that. You should go to their website, read what they have to say, listen to them speak, watch them debate, and decide for yourself what their ideas are. All I can do is let you know what mine are, as honestly and transparently as possible, then allow you to make your choice.

The second thing that I will not do is list off all of the things that I “do not believe” about my opponent/s, making sure to say them out loud as I do so and thereby trying to subconsciously plant them in your mind. That’s just inane. I have far more respect for your intelligence than to do that to you.

And the third thing that I will not do during this campaign is claim to have a truer understanding of my opponent’s motivation than anyone else does. Truthfully, the only person’s motivation I understand fully is my own. I will not waste my time (nor yours) by trying to reveal my opponent’s true agenda, but rather I will concentrate on sharing mine with you. And by the way, here it is:

(Insert true agenda here, including all sources of funding.)

Fourth, I will in no way shape or form claim to be the politician who will single-handedly change the culture in (insert city, state capitol, or 'Washington D.C.' here). To think that electing one person over another is all it will take to reform our government is naïve at best, and I know that you are not in the least bit naïve. It would be an insult to you to try to convince you of that. True reform will take a cultural shift the scope of which is almost greater than anyone can imagine, and will require years of concerted effort on the part of vast numbers of people in order to happen. I’ll do my best, but I’m not going to make any promises.

Please vote. It is important for us not to take that for granted. There’s a choice to make, and it is up to the voters to make it. If you have heard this speech, or read it somewhere, you now know what I think. To the best of my ability, I will operate from this perspective if you elect me. And please, seek from (opponent or opponents) the same kind of information that I have tried to provide you about myself.

It is only if you are truly informed that you will be able to make a good decision on election day. Thanks for listening!" of today, I'm still waiting.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Balance In Discipleship

An interesting point raised by the Right Reverend Patrick Moore:
"My main question to you is: Is the congregation where we do our discipleship stuff or is it the world? Is it God-Church-World or God-World-Church?"

I had written:
"Your congregation is a community of disciples in which you have chosen do your discipleship stuff."

It may have been clearer for me to have written:
"Your congregation is a community of disciples with whom you have chosen do your discipleship stuff."

But it is an interesting distinction, isn't it? The answer to Patrick's question is really, "Yes." We do our discipleship stuff in the congregation, meaning in community with other disciples. And we do our disicpleship stuff in the world, meaing the community is an outwardly focused one.

Yes, disciples are supposed to be "out there" in the world as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, serving others, offering love and grace, sharing in acts of justice and mercy, and so forth. And at the same time, we are the ekklesia, called together to be the church.

It's the same with individual discipleship, I believe. There's always a balance to strike between personal holiness and social holiness. Too much personal holiness leads to a christology in which I carry my Jesus around in a little box, and would take him out and kiss, kiss, kiss, and put him back again. (I still cannot believe anyone ever thought that song was okay to teach to children!)

Too much social holiness makes the church just another political action committee, one more on the list of really good groups doing really good stuff in the community, and asking you for your money to support all of their really good work.

Christian discipleship is not "either inward or outward," it is "both inward and outward." Jesus invites people to come to him, then sends them out to serve others. When Christian discipleship tilts too much inward, the disciple begins to wither. When Christian discipleship tilts too much outward, the disciple becomes exhausted.

Likewise, when the congregation is too inward, it stops growing and slowly fades away. But when it is too outward, the people become tired and burned out. In reality, the former condition is much more prevalent than the latter, but we do well not to tip the scale too far in our corrective efforts.

The pattern we are going to be using at Campbell, LIVE-GROW-SHARE, asks people to balance all three of these aspects. "Live" is the worship component, both corporate worship services and personal devotion time. "Grow" is that inward focus and "Share" is the outward expression. I believe that all three must be in balance for healthy discipleship.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More On Discipleship

If anyone has ever said to you that Christian discipleship was going to be easy, allow me to apologize. They were misinformed. It is not.

But, if anyone has ever neglected to say to you that Christian discipleship is the most joyous, grace-filled, wonderful thing a person could ever do, allow me to apologize. It is!

And finally, if anyone has ever told you that the job of a disciple is just to make more disciples, allow me to apologize. It is much, much more than that.

I think the biggest problem with myopic insistence on “make disciples” as a mission statement for disciples is quite simple. We really don’t want to limit ourselves to that alone. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but a lot of people simply believe there’s more to it than that. Wait, now! Before anyone freaks out, let me explain.

I guess what I mean is, if the mission statement was “love people” or “help people” or “serve people” or something like that, now we’re talking! Because a lot of people believe that loving people has inherent value, and that we do not need to tack on the additional agenda of making them into disciples in order for our action to be worth something.

See, when many of us hear “make disciples,” we hear “I don’t want to take the risk that I myself might be transformed or anything, so I’ll undertake it as my mission to change other people so that they are more like me.” Yes, it is an unfair characterization. I’m just saying, that’s how it comes across sometimes.

The problem is, discipleship requires risk. Discipleship means sacrificial, unconditional love for strangers. Discipleship asks us to love like Jesus loves, which means being willing to die for someone who doesn’t “deserve” it. And no, we do not get to decide who “deserves” it or not.

Discipleship is a response to the gift of salvation, and salvation is a gift from God that humans uncategorically do not deserve. I do what I do as a Christian disciple not because I am better than anyone, but because I am a sinner saved by grace, and I am so unbelievably grateful for that, I choose to be a disciple of Jesus. And my discipleship is lived out as a part of the church.

Your congregation is a community of disciples in which you have chosen do your discipleship stuff. You have made this choice because the congregation is where you feel like you will be able to flourish most effectively in your discipleship calling. The congregation you become a part of is your “spiritual home” because your unique gifts and graces, your personal strengths, your very identity, make the most sense there. Some people say that “it just feels right,” which is a beautiful way to express this idea. And how important it is to remember two things: 1) Just because a congregation doesn’t “feel right” to you doesn’t mean it won’t “feel right” to other people and the corollary: 2) Just because a congregation does “feel right” to you doesn’t mean it will to others.

The church, as a community of disciples, both supports disciples and holds them accountable. That means a congregation has got to offer disciples opportunity to practice discipleship. At Campbell, we identify those practices as worship, faith formation, fellowship, mission and service, generosity, and hospitality. (That’s Bishop Schnase’s book plus one.) What we try to do is make sure that the people who call Campbell home have opportunity to engage in all six of these areas of discipleship. What we do not do very well yet is hold people accountable to doing so, but we are working on that.

The mission of a congregation, as I see it, is to make sure that the disciples who are a part of that particular community have ample opportunity to engage in discipleship, and then to hold one another accountable to doing so. Yes, a part of that is inviting people to become disciples themselves, but only a part. To reduce discipleship to merely making more disciples is an oversimplification that we do well to avoid.

When a disciple of Jesus is fully engaged in a balanced life of discipleship, including worship (identity), growth (inner focus), and service (outward focus), a life pattern begins to be imprinted upon them. This pattern liberates the disciple; there is a life of joy and peace. When the pattern is out of balance, meaning the person is spending a disproportionate amount of time in any one of the three aspects of discipleship, there is often discontentment, an unsettled feeling that something isn’t right.

Although attaining that balance is hard, once you get it, it seems to become easier and easier. As the discipleship pattern becomes more and more deeply imprinted in your life, it releases you from the pressures of this world and sets you free to truly live as the person God desires.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Children's Church?

How many times has someone said, “I am so glad to see all of these children, because they are the future of the church”? I know I have. And on the surface, that is an accurate statement. I am indeed hopeful that the children in our congregation today will still be the church in the future.

But with that said, it must also be noted that children are more than just the future of the church, they are also the PRESENT of the church. They are here now, and are vital and vibrant members of the congregation in the present moment. We have to be careful not to relegate children to the future alone, for to do so denies their sacred worth in the here and now.

What would happen if we all decided to honor the inherent worth of children, instead of trying to mold them into smaller versions of ourselves? What would happen if we began to value children for who they really are, instead of considering them to be charming accessories to our community? Would we perhaps take more notice of, and work harder to alleviate their suffering?

The prophet Jeremiah has written, “In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” (31:29) Although it is no longer a common theological perspective that believes God punishes children for parental sins (see John 9), it is hard to deny that children often suffer for bad decisions that adults make.

The United States of America ranks #1 in the world in the number of billionaires.
In the United States of America a child is born into poverty every 32 seconds.

The words of the prophet announce with boldness that this is not God’s desire. “In those days” is a phrase that points us toward the fulfillment of the reign of God, at which moment children will be released from suffering the consequences of their parents’ (and other adults’) decisions.

For the next two weeks in our worship services, we will celebrate children – not as the future of the church, but as the here and now. “…For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ephesians Blows My Mind!

As I wrote my sermon today, on Ephesians 3:14-21, I realized that the book of Ephesians is already a sermon. So how would it be if I just stood up and read the book of Ephesians during the sermon time on Sunday morning?

That's what it was written for, wasn't it? The way I understand it, Ephesians was written not as a letter to a specific church dealing with a specific issue, but rather as an encyclical letter, meant to be read in a many different churches.

It is a remarkable book, and the brief section I'm focusing on for this week is a prayer for the hearers. The prayer has some truly amazing phrases:

"...from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name."

"...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love."

This one totally blows my mind:
"...that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

Really? "All the fullness?" And how are we supposed to know something that "surpasses knowledge?" WHOA!!!

But the line that grabs me and will not let me go is this one. The end of the prayer affirms that God "is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine..." YES! Amen to that. And lucky for us that's true, huh? I mean, what would the world be like if God was limited to only the things we ask for? How would it be if God was defined by our meager imaginations?

This passage gives me hope. In the midst of contention and strife, disagreement and bitterness, it is ever so important to affirm that God is not contained by human understandings. Even our fundamentalist-est sisters and brothers who claim to have access to the absolute truth of God know deep down that they have their own lenses, as well. We all do. In a beautiful, paradoxical and one might say ironic way, Scripture itself makes that very clear.

God is more. God can do more. God is bigger than all of our biggest dreams multiplied together.

How big is the space that you are creating for the possibilities of the future that God has in store for you?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Miraculous More of God

First, in October, I will ask the congregation to make a 3-year long promise to an “above-and-beyond” capital campaign, the goal of which is 1 million dollars.

Then, in November, I will ask the congregation to renew their promise of discipleship giving, the regular, week-by-week giving that supports the ministries of the church.

Next, in December, I will ask the congregation to keep track of the amount spent on Christmas gifts for family and friends, and contribute an equal amount to the town of Mellier, Haiti.

Sometimes it wears me out to think so much about money, and to ask people to give serious, prayerful, and intentional consideration to how they use their money. I sympathize with people who say, “All the church ever talks about is money!” I certainly understand why they feel that way. Sometimes it feels like that to me, too.

Part of why it wears me out is that I fear people will misconstrue my intentions. I don’t really care so much about the money; I care about the ministry the money makes possible.

First, the congregation needs this capital campaign in order to free up the thousands and thousands of dollars we are currently paying on interest, so that money can be put to work supporting ministry instead.

Then, the congregation needs to renew our promises of financial discipleship in order to continue and grow the wonderful ministries that are ongoing.

And next, the congregation needs to affirm that Christmas is about the presence of God, not the presents stocked on the shelves of the local Stuff Mart.

So none of the things I’ll be highlighting over these next three months is really “about the money,” although it surely seems that way on the surface. I believe that what we do with our money matters in the same way that what we do with our time, our talents, and our energy does. It’s about values. How we use our resources ought to reflect what we value.

To be honest, I don’t know exactly why talking about money makes me so nervous. In the Bible, Jesus was talking about money all the time. Money seemed to be one of his favorite topics, in fact. He quite obviously cared deeply about how his followers used their money, and so it makes sense that we should continue to do so today.

I’m reading (over and over again) Ephesians 3:14-21 in preparation for this week, and feel the power inherent in this brief passage. It is reminding me of what’s important, what the priorities are. It is truly an inspiring, amazing passage of scripture.

I am comforted by the thought that, wherever my mind might be at any given time, that God is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Personally, that means all my talk about money shouldn’t freak me out so much; God’s got it covered! As a congregation, that means "we are limited only by the size of our imagination;" sometimes clichés say it best, which is probably why they are clichés.

In other words, we might not make our million dollar capital goal or increase our discipleship giving for the upcoming year or gather as much money as we might have hoped to be able to send to Mellier. But to get stuck on that would miss the point. The point is that whatever we give, God will use it to do something good.

And knowing that should call us to increase, not decrease, the space we create for God to work in our lives. Knowing that God can work miracles with my meager gifts inspires me to give more, not less! Just as, knowing that God will forgive my sin inspires me to sin less, not more. Just as, knowing that God loves me no matter what I look like inspires me to dress up for church, not go all scuzzy.

See if this works for an illustration: I’m in a musical with Springfield Little Theater the next two weekends. When a scene crashes, the actors find a way to go on somehow, ad libbing until everything is back on track. But knowing that we’ll make it work somehow doesn’t mean that we’ll just go up there and wing it every show. On the contrary, we will work our tails off in rehearsal so that will not happen.

It is the same principle at work in our faith life, I think. Knowing that God is who God is should not inspire us to “phone it in” because God is so cool and can take care of it all. On the contrary, it should inspire us to “comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

May we all be inspired to be more by the “miraculous more” that God is able to do with and through and among us!

Monday, October 04, 2010

MLB Playoffs

2010 Major League Playoff Teams Ranked by Payroll

American League
New York Yankees - - - - $206,333,389
Minnesota Twins - - - - - -$97,559,167
Tampa Bay Rays - - - - - -$71,923,471
Texas Rangers - - - - - - -$55,250,545

National League
Philadelphia Phillies - - - - $141,927,381
San Francisco Giants - - - - $97,828,833
Atlanta Braves - - - - - - -$84,423,667
Cincinnati Reds - - - - - - $72,386,544

So who am I rooting for?

My only criterion in rooting for the baseball playoffs for the past few years has been to root for the lower payroll. And so, of course, I’d like to see a Cincinnati versus Texas World Series, with Texas winning.

San Diego had a chance to make the playoffs, at a paltry $37,799,300 this year. I was really pulling for them. Sadly, Pittsburgh, the only team with a payroll lower than San Diego, never had a shot.

The team with the lowest payroll in the American League was the Oakland A’s, at $51,654,900. So the dream World Series this year would have been Oakland versus Pittsburgh, with Pittsburgh winning it all, and the Yankees contributing their entire payroll to eliminate global hunger.

On second though, let’s not get greedy. The Yankees could contribute just HALF of their payroll to eliminate global hunger. This move would, by the way, only shift them down to eighth on the list of thirty team payrolls.

Info from -

Friday, October 01, 2010

Just the Way I See It:

Here’s what I think:

Every single time one uses the phrase “the Bible says,” one should precede it with “I believe that…” or “The way I read it…” or “According to my interpretation…” or some such clarifying phrase. Especially with issues upon which there is well-documented disagreement, like homosexuality.

Actually, I kind of thought we were past all of the “the-Bible-clearly-says-this” versus “oh-no-it-doesn’t-it-clearly-says-that” skubalon (Look it up – Philippians 3:8). But apparently not. I’ve read comments on a few online posts recently that are filled with it. Whatever comes after that phrase, the point is weakened because the author has demonstrated they are unwilling to hear any other perspective.

Question: How in the world am I supposed to take your point seriously if you are so blatant about your unwillingness to take anyone else’s seriously? Seriously.

Not to mention, there is a kind of arrogance in claiming to be privy to what the Bible clearly says or not. I am reticent to make such a claim myself; I take the Holy Scripture far too seriously to even remotely hint that I understand it completely. My wisest wisdom is utter foolishness with God. I believe that God’s Word is too big, too complex, too omni-everything to be codified or contained in a list of doctrines. And I know that the only interpretation I ever have is the one God has revealed to me, and spiritual maturity means learning how to deal with the fact that sometimes my interpretation is different than yours.

Looky here. Be clear about what you believe. Be firm in that belief. Claim it! And at the same time, be willing to hear reproof, rebuttal, admonition, and even affirmation. If your belief is really that strong, another perspective will be no threat to it! And maybe, just maybe, you will actually learn something and end up better for listening. That’s why we are supposed to do this Christianity thing together, as the church, just as “one body has many members,” because no single one of us, no single group of us, no single denomination of us, has an exclusive hold on the full truth of God.

(And now let’s get to the nitty and/or the gritty, whichever you prefer.)

Specifically, I am tired of being accused of not loving Jesus, or not regarding scripture as God-inspired, or not being a faithful disciple of Christ, and so forth, simply because I am in the group of Christians who do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. To be clear: I love Jesus. I believe scripture to be inspired by God. I am a faithful disciple who is working out my own salvation with fear and trembling. And so forth. And – I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. (Side note: Yes, there are a lot of Christians who feel this way.)

At the same time, I have dear friends and colleagues who do believe homosexuality is a sin. I do not think they are hateful people. I do not think they do not love Jesus. I do not think they are unfaithful or “wrong” or homophobic or anything like that. I think that they are faithful disciples of Jesus who love God and neighbor just like me, and who happen to have come to a different perspective on this issue than I have.

There are other examples, too. This one happens to be one of the most sensitive. I have written a lot about it before, and you are welcome to click around my prior blog posts to read what I’ve written at various times over the past few years.

The larger point of this post is to issue a plea that we might “provoke one another to love and good deeds” in the way that we disagree with one another, a plea that we might set at tone of grace and respect in every one of our conversations. Journalism is not setting that tone; politics is not setting that tone; business is not setting that tone.

And sadly, neither is the church. But maybe we could. Maybe we should! Please, “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” At least that’s the way I see it. If you disagree, I just ask that you do so respectfully!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Communion: The Holy Polyseme

I learned a new word today. Polysemy. It means "a diversity of meanings." Isn't that a cool word? It seems to me that a lot of things that have to do with faith and God and religion and church are polysemic. For example, the sacrament of Holy Communion.

World Communion Sunday is this week. That means not only will we have the holy privilege of celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in worship, but we do so knowing that Christians all around the world will be sharing the Eucharist meal together on one remarkable day.

I like to imagine a wave of Holy Communion sweeping over the world, as the planet spins into the sunrise and Christians gather together in one time zone after another. Our sacrament in Springfield has been preceded by the sacrament happening to the east, and will be followed by the sacrament as it happens to the west. It is like a “grace wave” that washes the world with its gentle strength, one bite of bread and sip of juice at a time.

To prepare for this week, I asked the congregation some prayerful questions in my newsletter article …

What does the sacrament of Holy Communion mean to you, personally? What do you bring with you to the table? Is the meal simply a symbol? What does it symbolize? Is it a historic reenactment of a moment Jesus shared with his friends? Is it a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet table God is preparing for all people? Is it an entry point for the grace of God into your life? Is it a time of shaping the communal identity of the church? Is it something else altogether?

Of course, any of my questions could be answered in the affirmative. The truth is, Holy Communion is all of those things and more. The event has shades of meaning that emerge differently for different people. And similarly, Communion can mean something different to you at one point in your life than it might mean at another point. That means the sacrament is kind of a “Holy Polyseme.” It is one of the numerous polysemic aspects of Christianity.

It's too bad the ambiguity apparent in polysemic things makes people so uncomfortable. This discomfort leads us to strive for monosemy, the fact of having only one meaning. Of course, problems arise when my monosemy doesn't match your monosemy! We then have a choice to make; we either fight about it until the winner gets to declare his or her monosemy to be correct, or we agree that the thing we are fighting over may very well be a polysemic situation.

See how great this word is? So useful.

Please don't read this as a blanket affirmation of any and all perspectives. I am comfortable with ambiguity, but not all ambiguity is created equal, if you know what I mean. For example, I am not remotely tolerant of perspectives that are harmful to another person. So if a child is being abused, I will in no way shape or form say, "Well that's just another person's definition discipline. It's not how I would do it, but hey, they're entitled to their point of view." No way! I'll stick up for the kid, every single time.

There is a place for certainty and a time to say, "This is not right!" or "That's just how it is, period." Part of spiritual, emotional, and social maturity is discerning when those times are.

Holy Communion is not one of those. It's meaning is richly polysemic, and I love every bit of it! And this coming Sunday is one of my favorites, every year. Just thinking about the significance of a global sharing in the sacrament, so many millions of souls gathered around Christ's table together ... wow!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Lost / Found

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of parables about being found: one sheep out of a hundred, one coin out of ten, and one prodigal son who “was lost and has been found.” In each parable, an extraordinary effort is made for the sake of the one who is lost, an effort that seems disproportionate to the rest of the story.

A shepherd leaves 99 perfectly okay sheep behind to find one stray. A woman sweeps up her whole house to find a coin and throws a party for her neighbors when she does. And speaking of parties, a father puts on a blow-out fiesta celebration for a son who squandered his entire inheritance.

Why the imbalance? Surely it isn’t fair to the 99 sheep who stayed home! Surely the woman can make do with 9 coins out of 10! Surely the older brother deserves just as big a party as his irresponsible, prodigal sibling! I mean, come on! *Stamp foot indignantly*

Of course, as understandable as such indignation may be, it only serves to emphasize the larger lessons Jesus is teaching in these parables. He tells them in response to a challenge; namely, that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (v. 2). And rather than say simply, “Well, of course I do; that’s kind of why I’m here!” he tells a series of parables designed to help us figure that out for ourselves.

What we see is determined by where we are standing. Grace may create indignation for the 99 sheep who stay in the fold, but for the one who is lost, there is no greater bliss than realizing the shepherd has come looking for you!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The “Letter of Paul to Philemon” is a short book of the Bible tucked into the late part of the New Testament; if you blink you’ll miss it. But it is a powerful letter that is the backdrop for a story of a fresh start, a second chance made possible by the grace of God.

Philemon and Onesimus had been estranged; the letter does not reveal the reason. Paul is now writing to Philemon to encourage him to reconcile with Onesimus, to be in relationship again, as a beloved brother.

There is power in reconciliation. In the same way that forgiveness does not condone the preceding harm, reconciliation does not ignore the estrangement that precedes it. Reconciliation simply moves on from there. Reconciliation is a fresh start on a relationship that carries its baggage along for the journey.

With whom do you need to sense the power of reconciliation? A family member you’ve been fighting with? A friend you haven’t seen in weeks or months? There’s no need to pretend that the estrangement didn’t happen. In fact to do so would be unhealthy. Why not take a risk, reach out to them, and let them know you still love them?

The baggage of the estrangement will be heavy at first, but over time it will lighten. The burden will grow less and less as the relationship is nurtured in grace, until it will be all but imperceptible. And then you will be so much closer to living the life God desires for you.

When we are struck by grace, we can only barely begin to imagine the possibilities of what God might do.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

First Stone

Here's what I wrote for my newsletter article this week:

I have a stone on my desk. I got it a long time ago, so the writing on it is faded a lot. But you can still just barely make it out, if you look closely and squint.

It says, “First.”

I keep it close to me, to remind me of the story from John, chapter 8, where Jesus calmly addresses an angry mob saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I keep that stone on my desk because there are times that I really, really want to metaphorically hurl it in the direction of some person with whom I am angry, or who I feel is in the wrong somehow, or even sometimes who is just bugging me. Most of the time I can catch myself before I let loose; a glance at the “first stone” on my desk will remind me of that shocking story in John 8.

That story is shocking not because an innocent woman was about to be stoned by a crowd. It is shocking precisely because the woman really was guilty of the sin the crowd had accused her of, and yet Jesus himself did not condemn her. Earlier in the Gospel, John has reminded us that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the word, but to save it (3:17).

And so, if Jesus himself did not come to condemn guilty people, but to forgive … maybe we should try to follow that lead. It’s funny, isn’t it? We can see ourselves in the crowd, we can see ourselves as the woman forgiven; but how often do we see ourselves as Jesus? How often do we realize that Jesus doesn’t condemn the would-be stone throwers, either?

To borrow a well-worn cliché, it’s either forgiveness or it’s not. Or said another way, forgiveness is either there for everyone or no one. Now, that would be a shock!

As usual, I've been thinking about it a lot since I wrote it. What came to mind this morning was this - we often use forgiveness as a schlocky self-help technique, and remain blissfully unaware of the raw power of grace. How often do we say, "You've got to forgive others ... " or "The hardest thing to do is forgive yourself, but you have to ... " so that YOU will feel better?

It is as if my act of forgiveness is intended only to erase my emotional response to some event that has offended me, and make everything my-pretty-pony shiny and happy again. The more I think about it, the harder it is to swallow.

Our model for forgiveness is Jesus. He did not forgive others for his own benefit. His forgiveness was given so that the one who was guilty would be set free to live a new life. His oft repeated nudge to "go and sin no more" at the end of so many episodes reveals his desire that the one who has been forgiven is now expected to live differently. Sin matters to Jesus, and his standard operating procedure is not to beat people up with how sinful they are, but to forgive them and then release them to do better from here on out.

Another thing I'm thinking about - I absolutely LOVE to throw stones at stone throwers. You know what I mean? When I percieve that stone throwing is happening, I am happy to wade into the fray, if not outwardly, at least in my mind, and often in long gripe sessions to the captive audience of my wife! But in this story, Jesus does not throw any stones himself. His desire seems to be to set the would-be stone throwers themselves free to live a new life, as well.

That's hard for me. Because there are times, when harm is being done, that we have got to stop it from happening. And there are times when the most effective way to stop it is to directly confront the one doing harm. And yet there is no denying that, in John 8, Jesus' approach was effective; he prevented the stoning from happening, got the crowd to confront their own sinfulness, and charged the woman to go and live a new life. Not that I am surprised that his approach worked; he is, after all ... well ... Jesus.

I don't have a pithy conclusion to all this musing. It's just musing, working things out, trying to figure out what questions I need to ask. I would love to hear any thoughts that you might have about forgiveness, condemnation, passing judgement, and the power of grace. To be continued...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hello, Little Girl

We set up the crib this week. Covered all of the outlets, got down the high chair again, dusted off the stroller. We have exchanged all the nice books on the living room table for board books, and found all of the lids for the sippy cups.

There were three voice mails waiting for us when we got back from vacation, three case workers asking us about placing five kids who needed a foster home. Before we could follow up on any of those, we got two more calls in quick succession the next morning.

Anyone reading this still not have an idea as to the desperate need for more foster families?

We said yes to a seventeen-month-old little girl who is as easy going as she is energetic. She’s toddling into every corner of the house, exploring everything, and reaching her arms out to everyone she meets, asking to be picked up, which is impossible to resist, of course. She has already been in foster care for two months, having lived in two homes in that time. She eats any food we put down in front of her, goes right to sleep when we put her in the crib, and sleeps all night long.

Funny how even though we have only known this little person for two days, we somehow seem to love her already. So much of this feels so familiar, riding a bike –ish; after all she is number 14 on the list of foster kids we have cared for. And yet at the same time it feels brand new, scary and uncertain; after all she is a singular person we barely know and have a lot to learn about.

We set up the crib this week, the same old, familiar crib with a brand new, wonderful kid sleeping in it. I can’t wait until our church family meets her and starts loving on her! And as usual, we’ll provide a safe space, healthy food, and all the love we can muster, for as long as we need to.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life Unplugged

I am going to preach about healing on Sunday. And as it happens, I am using the idea of “unplugging” from the things that bind us in order to be healed. How fortuitous that I found this super cool article about how unplugging from the world actually helps our brains function like they are supposed to!

When we roll from one screen to another, be it desktop or laptop or phone or TV or whatever, our attention wanders. Our brains actually cannot pay attention to one thing for a long time, say some hypotheses. Others are skeptical, of course, and science is still exploring this brand new field of inquiry.

But personal experience (as in the last ten days) lends itself to support of this idea. I spent the vacation unplugged. No phone, no texts, no facebook, no emails. (In full disclosure, I did go online one time, to confirm a reservation – but that was all.)

And I felt the “third day syndrome” that the article talks about, as time slowed down and each moment became larger in my awareness. It was very cool. I never once thought, “Well where did that day go?” Time never flew by. Even as busy as we were seeing sights and doing all the camping stuff, the 10 days stretched out as I experienced them, they did not rush by.

So Jesus unbinds a woman from the disease that has been bending her over for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-13). Then the synagogue leaders display how bound they are by the rules of their religion by criticizing Jesus for his healing (v. 14). Then Jesus illuminates their hypocrisy by pointing out that they themselves unbind their livestock on the Sabbath, and so why should a woman of God not be unbound (v. 15-16)?

In other words, healing is all about being freed from bondage in this story. And that is helpful, I think, in distinguishing “healing” from “curing.” One does not have to be cured of an ailment in order to be healed. Being healed might be being released from anxiety about the ailment, even while still suffering from it. Being healed might look like relief of pain, even as the disease continues to ravage the body. Being healed might even feel like being ready for death, and at peace with God.

Being healed may very well be analogous with being cured, as well. God is infinitely powerful and is able to do abundantly far more than we can ever ask or imagine. And so sometimes healing and curing happen at the same time, and when they do, the stories people tell are called “miracles” or evidence of “blessing.” However, just because we don’t see a cure does not mean that healing has not happened.

Think about what binds you. Is it technology? Television? The giant tubes that comprise the internets? Your Blackberry Curve? (Ouch.)

Now wait, I’m not intending to say that all technology is bad all the time. Technology has connected us to one another in remarkable ways. But those connections can quickly become sticky strands of webbing that do not allow us to function as God intends. From time to time, we need to heal, to be unbound from what traps us in a kind of existence that really isn’t the abundant life Jesus came to offer.

Life, unplugged.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

See Ya!

We are packing today, and leaving tomorrow on the Bryan family vacation, version 2010. This year, we are going west: Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes. We'll be tent camping in all three parks, and at this point I should highlight the depth of love I hold for my wife Erin, who is quite convincingly acting as though she is not going to be dreading every minute of it! :)

This time, I am unplugging. No Enter the Rainbow, no Facebook, no email, no text messages. We have our cell phones so that we can be reached in emergencies, but that's gonna be it. I'm not even going to be bringing my pedometer!

However, we know that my grandfather is having surgery today, and we are worried about him. The timing isn't great; this is a re-scheduling of his surgery from an earlier date, and our reservations are made. So we are not totally gone, since par of us will be in Dallas with him. He is surrounded by family right now, so that's good. But we still are feeling torn.

And at the same time, the weather forecast in northeastern Arizona and southwestern Colorado for the next two weeks is for highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid 50s. My amazing family unit will be together in the midst of some of the most beautiful area of God's earth. The pace will slow down, we'll have space to stretch and time to breathe deeply, and unwind our minds for a while.

See ya in two weeks!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The High Life

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:2)

When an athlete is experiencing a particularly good streak, she is often said to have “elevated her game.” Or sometimes we would say he has “taken it to the next level.”

Of course, the athlete in question is still on the same plane, feet on the same field as the rest of us, but we use the metaphor of elevation to describe something better. Higher is, generally speaking, better – at least when it comes to metaphors.

So it is with the verse from Colossians above, and the idea of God being “up there” somewhere above us. Of course we don’t really believe that God is “up” but we use the metaphor of “up” to describe and address God. How many of us have gazed upward at some point in order to lament, “Why me, Lord?”

God is all around, within and among, above and below and in between. “There Is No Place Where God Is Not,” reads the first line of a Charles Haddon Spurgeon poem. God is everywhere, not just “above” us. When this scripture calls us to look above in order to find Christ, I think it is using the real direction as a metaphor for “better.” Simply put, when we follow Jesus we are supposed to live better lives than when we do not.

And what does this “high life” look like? Paul paints a picture with words later in the chapter: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and above all, LOVE! Love is the force that runs throughout the elevated life in Christ, that “binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Elevate your game. Elevate your life. Seek that which is above, where Christ is.
This Sunday, we’re going to talk about Elevation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"What's a Emeny?"

One preschool chapel, I was telling the story of the Good Samaritan. When I got to the part about the Samaritan seeing the guy in the ditch, I explained that Samaritans were enemies of people from Jerusalem. One adorable little girl raised her hand with a question. “What’s a emeny?” she asked, just as sweet as you could ever be.

How beautiful is it to not know what the definition of “enemy” is? I mean, she didn’t even know how to pronounce the word, since she had never used it in her entire life! I didn’t know whether or not I should define it for her, like I was crushing a new rose bud just beginning to open. As nearly as I can remember it, I went with something like, “They weren’t really friends” or “They didn’t know each other,” something along those lines.

What if the guy who asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10 had asked instead “Who is my enemy?” After all, one of the things he asks his followers to do is “love your enemies.” What about a follow-up parable, Jesus? “And who is my enemy?” What kind of parable would he have told?

People have a propensity toward love, I believe. I see it in kids. They are so, so much more ready to love than us grown-ups are. For example, foster kids come to our home having been horribly neglected or abused by their parents, and yet by some unfathomable mystery, the kids still seem to love them. Kids love their parents, no matter how crappy the parents may be. Kinda sucks sometimes, but there it is.

As we age, something seems to kind of grind the love right out of us. Over time, we are systematically and carefully taught who, exactly, our enemies are. The result is a slew of artificial enemies, people who aren’t really our enemies but we think they are because we have been taught as much. I wish Jesus had said to us, “Love the people you think are your enemies because you have been taught as much, but they’re really not they’re actually your neighbors so saying ‘love your enemies’ is in point of fact just the same as saying ‘love your neighbor’.” But Jesus wasn’t that wordy.

Of course, what I am NOT saying is that we should be naïvely trusting of every single person we meet. That could be dangerous. Teaching kids about “enemies” can be a safety thing. But I also notice a confusing double standard parents routinely teach kids. We warn kids about “stranger danger” but at the same time insist that they “be polite” when someone talks to them. That’s got to be a bit bewildering, don’t you think? When equal parts “Don’t talk to strangers” and “Can you say hi?” come out of our mouths, we are sending mixed messages, at best.

The truth is, a stranger is not automatically an enemy, and an acquaintance (even a family member), is not automatically a friend. 80% of child maltreatment perpetrators are parents, another 6.5% are other relatives, another 4.4% are unmarried partners of parents, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. For many kids, when your parents warn you not to talk to strangers, it’s because they don’t want to get arrested.

We have fostered kids who never should have had the experiences in their lives that they had, kids whose eyes look a lot older than the rest of them. Their propensity to love is out of whack because of the tendency toward violence that their lives have been, BUT it is STILL THERE. Sometimes the mixture of love and hurt is just too much, and it overflows in terrible, heart breaking ways.

They know exactly what an enemy is, and you had better believe they love them.

Mandela, Invictus, and Loving Enemies

Sunday was Nelson Mandela’s ninety-second birthday. Even a cursory reading of his biography amazes and astounds. Imagine being imprisoned for 27 years, then upon being released finding it within yourself to forgive the people who held you prisoner.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Mandela, experiencing adversity and persecution for his whole life, somehow found it within himself to show love and respect to people who otherwise might be his enemies. The movie Invictus explores one way he did that, and convinced so many others to do so, as well.

“Love your enemies.” It is surely one of the most difficult things Christians are supposed to do, isn’t it? We would much rather love the ones who love us in return. And of course, it’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to do that, but rather that loving people who love you is kind of a no-brainer, anyway. As he puts it (with a bit of a wry grin, I imagine), “Even tax collectors do THAT!”

To truly be doing what Jesus wants us to do, we have to love “enemies,” a very strong word indeed. It means “hated” or “odious” or “hateful.” One who is “hostile” and “opposing another.” Not just annoying or grumpy or bitter people (although to be sure, we are supposed to love them too!), but people who are openly hateful. Whoa!

It is staggering enough to think of such an idea personally, but then consider inspiring others to think the same way, as Nelson Mandela did, and we are left shaking our heads. But if we are to take the Great Commission seriously, to “make disciples” of all, that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing – not only loving others as Jesus loves, but inspiring others to do likewise.

Well, let’s get to work!

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Author of Life

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.

- William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

Sometimes it is tempting to think of life as a drama that is being played out around us. We slip into a kind of existential “role play” in order to get by from one scene to the next. There is an assumed script for life and our job is just to speak our lines, make our entrances, hit our marks, and exit the stage at the appropriate time.

On the other hand, there are times that life seems random, even chaotic. We wonder why things happen, we question our own choices, we seem to be tossed to and fro, blown about by trickery and craftiness and deceitful scheming.

There are people who believe that God has every single moment of every single life planned in every single detail. There are people who believe that everything is random, guided by people’s choices and nature’s whims.

In the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” one man becomes a case study in free will. Harold Crick’s life is being narrated, and he knows it. Is the narrator describing what Harold is already doing? Or does the narrator control Harold’s actions with her words? Is he free, or not?

What does it mean to call Jesus the “Author of Life?” (Acts 3:15, NRSV)

These are the questions, and so much more, we will be asking this week, in our ongoing series, “Campbell at the Movies.”

I hope that you will choose to come and worship God on Sunday morning!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"UP" - It's About Love!

This week, Campbell UMC is watching “UP” together and our worship service is drawing from themes out of the remarkable movie. When I asked my daughter what she thought “Up” was about, she said without hesitation, “It’s about love!” And you know, she’s a pretty smart girl.

How many impulses can be attributed to the underlying human inclination to be in relationship with another person? To be known, to be affirmed, and to be thus connected to another human being is our life’s core purpose. The fulfillment of this purpose is experienced as being loved.

The flipside, by the way, is to know, to affirm, and connect to another person. The inclination toward relationship is mutual, and when the energy flows outward, we understand what it means to love. To love and to be loved, it seems to me, motivate just about everything we do.

These impulses flash in both positive and negative ways, though they arise from the same source. Consider Carl Fredricksen, the old man in “Up” whose wife Ellie dies after a lifetime of wonderful happy years together. They dream of adventure, imagine traveling to exotic locales and eventually building their home at the top of the near-mythical “Paradise Falls.”

Carl’s impulse to act at the beginning of the movie is a desperate longing for Ellie and a deep regret that their imagined adventures never happened, and it leads him to obsessively preserve their house and all of their possessions – even their mailbox. When the mailbox is knocked over by a construction worker, Carl’s frantic desperation (grief) causes him to physically attack the worker as he attempts to repair it.

This violence is completely out of character for Carl, who has been seen up to this point as a quiet, solid, and dependable man. But the impulse for his action is his powerful love for Ellie, a longing that has for so many years been easily fulfilled that he cannot redirect it after her death. It makes him do something he would never ordinarily have done, and he even seems surprised by it.

Russell is a boy who is trying to get his “Assisting the Elderly” badge for Wilderness Explorer Scouts, and so knocks on Carl’s door to ask him if he needs any help with anything. Russell is looking forward to the ceremony in which the badges are awarded, when “all the dads come” to be with their sons. We quickly learn, however, that Russell’s dad is out of the picture, and the longing that Russell feels is for the paternal relationship that he so deeply desires but does not have.

Russell longs for affirmation. Carl longs for adventure. And so, in their meeting and the development of their relationship, Russell becomes Carl’s adventure as Carl becomes Russell’s affirmation. Each knows the other and is known, each affirms and is affirmed, they connect deeply with each other and their relationship is a beautiful picture of love.

Jesus saved his last few words with his disciples for, “Love one another.” Paul says that the entire law is contained in the phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 1st John 4 reveals that God’s very identity is somehow comprised of love. There is no more significant idea for children of God than love; everything else starts there – grace, peace, justice, forgiveness – without love none of these even make sense.

Love is supposed to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. Or so Paul would have us understand. But what in the world does that mean?

Maybe it means, in part, that there is a “no-matter-whatness” quality of love. To bear, to endure all things – I get this. But to believe all things? …to hope all things?

All things? Really?

Maybe it means there is an attitude of openness in love. Not naïveté (believe anything you hear), but faithfulness. Knowing that, in a loving relationship, whatever happens is going to be okay. So you’re open to it, not afraid, ready for it.

In all things, I will have faith. In all things, I will have hope. Because of the love, you see. Because I am known and it’s okay, because I am being affirmed, because I am connected to another person in a positive, uplifting relationship. And at the same time I risk knowing another, affirming another, and connecting to another to uplift them and build them up, too.

That may be why love is the greatest of these.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Reflections After Church Camp: *Smile*

Amazing things happen at church camp.

I remember a meeting once in which a colleague said, “All I ever hear about church camp is sort of emotional, sentimental reactions to it. But what actual good is it doing? What does the church get out of it? Why is it worth putting so many resources into?” I think I understand where he is coming from, and I honestly do not believe he was trying to make my stomach turn over and my jaw drop open with shock, even though that was my reaction.

He’s coming from a place where bigger, slicker programs with well-known presenters giving workshops in air-conditioned meeting rooms are more important, more effective, or more meaningful than spending a week in a hot, dirty, tick-ridden forest slathering sunscreen on top of bug spray. I get it. I’ve even been there.

But I’ll tell you, if you have experiences like my family and I had this week, you just don’t even think to ask questions like that. You don’t need to, because you know.

You know as you watch fifty-plus people from 10 families grow closer to God and one another as they stroll through a series of spiritual stations set up in the woods.

You know as you listen to a second grader singing softly to herself, “God is amazing!” as she colors a picture of a joyful moment.

You know as you catch the energy of a dining hall filled with more than sixty 3rd and 4th graders who are learning that God loves them no matter what, and having a great time doing it.

You know as you see the love of grandparents who desire to share their faith with their grandchildren so deeply, wanting the kids to grow and learn and feel God’s grace like they have.

I knew this week as I watched my wife Erin lead the singing for worship and saw the unmitigated joy on her face as she did so, knowing others were sensing that joy, too.

I knew as I embraced people whom I had not even met three days prior, feeling the connection of the Holy Spirit among and around and within us, strangers who had become friends.

These experiences and a thousand-thousand others, this week, all summer long, and all year-round, no way to account for each of them, no tally sheet that could ever possibly convey what they all mean, all of them happening because the United Methodist Church in Missouri believes that amazing things happen at church camp.

Sentimental? Emotional? Yes! No doubt about it.

“Worth” it? Absolutely! Every penny.

It was a great week at church camp – I experienced growth personally, Erin and I grew as a couple, we grew as a family, and as a larger community of faith. If what the Missouri Annual Conference is supposed to be doing is “leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ,” then supporting church camp is one of the most powerful and effective ways to do that. People come home from church camp with energy, focus, momentum, renewal, and they bring life and joy into their congregations in powerful ways, in addition to energizing their own active discipleship.

It sometimes feels like church camp is in the ongoing position of having to stick up for itself, and I can’t figure out exactly why that is. Here in Missouri, our United Methodist campgrounds are Camp Galilee, Camp Jo-Ota, Blue Mountain Center, and Wilderness Retreat & Development Center. At each of these four wonderful places, hundreds and hundreds of lives are changed, relationships deepened, spirits lifted, disciples formed, and commitments to Christ strengthened every year.

Church camp is truly an amazing time, where transformation is happening on a regular basis, and the church of Jesus Christ is strengthened in deep and abiding ways. I thank God for church camp, and for the people who make it happen. And I wish everyone would go so they might have the kind of experience we have every single time we’re there!