Thursday, April 29, 2010

Have You Ever Wondered ... ?

What if this phenomenal congregation I serve could cultivate a reputation for respectful and grace-filled dialogue? What if that could be this congregation’s “niche” in the community? The experts say you need to claim a niche, a unique identity to cultivate. So what would it look like if that could be ours?

It would be a safe zone for asking questions – whatever questions you have. It wouldn’t be an “either/or” congregation, it would be a “have you ever wondered” congregation. I’m talking about an ethos, or an atmosphere, or maybe a culture. It’s an ethos of openness and curiosity, and a suspension of judgment for the sake of mutual inquiry.

So, if the life questions you have are leading you in a different direction than I am going, that’s just fine, let me walk with you for a while and we’ll see where we end up. I would want to hear your questions with the same respect and graciousness that I would want you to hear mine. But the point is that we would be walking together during the journey, no matter what.

There would be intentional opportunities to discuss things over which there is disagreement, and these intentional opportunities would be sacred moments of Christian conversation, or even worship! These moments would be surrounded on all sides with prayer. We would neither avoid talking about the issues we disagree on, nor fight about them, but rather we would discuss them like rational people who love one another.

We may even joke about them from time to time, poking fun at our tendency to label one another this or that or the other. But we wouldn’t bristle or take it personally. Our relationships with one another would not be threatened by our disagreements, but maybe even made richer by them.

Campbell UMC is doing a 3 week class on Evolution/Creation now on Wednesday nights, and it was very well attended yesterday. And as far as I know, nobody threw a chair or rent their garments or anything dramatic like that. So I’m wondering, what if we had things like this four or five times a year – on the separation of church and state, or immigration reform, or marriage, or health care, or war, or the environment, or gun rights, etc. – not as advocacy but just as conversations?

They would be conversations about issues that we know people have questions about, and that we tend to disagree about. The goal of these conversations would not be to convince but just to communicate. Could we do it? It would be radically counter-cultural! But isn’t that what the church is supposed to be, anyway?

So I guess I’m pondering on two levels. First, is creating that kind of ethos possible? Second, is that ethos the kind of thing a congregation can claim as it’s “niche” in the community? What do y’all think?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Donor Sabbath Service

This morning Campbell UMC hosted an event for Mid-America Transplant Services. It was a Donor Sabbath Service, and it was the first time I had been a part of one. I had spoken with others about them, and knew they were very meaningful, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how moving it was.

It was an amazing experience. I was humbled to be included, offering a simple word of welcome at the beginning of the time. The morning featured several particularly memorable moments. There were slideshows of pictures of organ donors scattered throughout the service. People were moved to tears, seeing their loved ones on the screen.

A woman who had received a cornea transplant was there to say thank you to the families of the donors for their gifts. Because someone decided to donate tissue, she is now able to see her grandchildren. She began to cry as she spoke, and they were beautiful tears of grief and joy that many shared with her in that moment.

The father of a boy who had received a donated liver 5 years ago told their story, very heavy with emotion, then introduced his son who ran up to the podium. He ended his very powerful presentation by thanking the families for their decisions to donate life, saying that a decision like theirs was what made it possible for him to be standing beside his son this morning.

There was a moving candle lighting ceremony in memory and celebration of life in which the family of an organ donor lit a candle, then the recipients of donated organs lit candles in response.

The most poignant moment for me was when the families of the donors were able to come forward one at a time and speak aloud the name of their loved one who had died. They then each received a gift, handed to them by an organ recipient. The gift was a pin, a star shape with a spiral in the center, itself designed by an organ donation recipient. The parents of the boy from whom her kidney and pancreas had come told her that there was a certain star in the sky that represents their son, who is watching over her. And so in the pin, the star is for him and the spiral is to symbolize the continuity of life.

As each family came forward to speak aloud the name of their son, daughter, wife, husband, the song “You Raise Me Up” was being played on piano and flute. After all had come forward, the main speaker said, “I have one more name that I’d like to include in the list.” She then spoke aloud the name of the father of the flutist, Rachel, whose dad was able to be an organ donor when he died.

The whole service was so powerful. It struck me how, no matter where each one had come from, no matter what the life experience of each one was, from a variety of perspectives and situations, they all had a common bond that is deeper than can be expressed. As the names filled the sanctuary, one after the other, everyone present was moved in some way. Tears and smiles at the same time – a unique feeling that simply cannot be described, only experienced.

I do not think I have ever been closer to truly understanding what resurrection is than during this incredible moment. I am hopeful that we can continue to host the Donor Sabbath for a long time.

As a part of the service, a doctor spoke about the facts and figures of organ and tissue donation in our nation. The numbers went by really fast, so I didn’t get them exactly, but he indicated that there are more than 107,000 people waiting for organs today. He also cited the number of people who die while waiting, which I cannot remember exactly, but it is way high.

He also told us how many deaths there are where there would be the possibility to donate tissue or organs, then indicated that (if I remember right) less than half of those people actually do. Again if I remember the numbers correctly, the number of waiting-list deaths is less than the number of donation-eligible deaths who decide not to donate. I inferred (though he did not say it outright) that if more people would have donated, those deaths need not have happened.

Please let your family know right now that you want to be an organ and tissue donor when you die. Tell them now, tell all of them, and remind them often. Register with your state donor registry, do the driver’s license thing, carry a donor card, and tell your loved ones exactly what you want to happen. After the Donor Sabbath, I immediately went home and told Erin to make sure every single part of me that it is possible to donate, I want to be donated.
Click here for more donor info.
Each person who becomes a donor can affect the lives of up to 50 other people! It is truly an amazing gift.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Attitude Matters

I believe that how you live matters more than what you do.

(“How you live” is your approach to life, your attitude, your demeanor.)

(“What you do” are the specific words and acts that you accomplish or don’t.)

I also believe that most of the world believes the opposite: that what you do matters more than how you live.

We might not put it that way exactly, but I’ve noticed how we construct our systems and order our lives toward accomplishment, advancement, measurable goals, and growth. In other words, we place a high value on the end, sometimes to the neglect of the means. So concerned about “what” we are doing, we tend to neglect the “how” and may never even consider the “why.”

Get good grades. Win the game. Meet the deadline. Make the quota. Come in on budget (or even better, under). Set a specific, attainable, measurable goal and then assess at the end of the predetermined time period whether it has been met, rinse and repeat. So many of our values seem to be skewed toward prioritizing our accomplishments, what we do, over anything else.

But every now and then something happens to shake up that value system. Like last Sunday, when Brian Davis came in second at the Verizon Heritage golf tournament. Jim Furyk was the winner; he’s the one with the big accomplishment. But Brian Davis is the one the news was buzzing about the next day.

You’ve probably heard the story by now; he came in second because he called a two-stroke penalty against himself.

He chose to do the right thing, even though the infraction was accidental and so miniscule that it may have been overlooked by the officials had he said nothing. That reveals how he lives, more so than what he did. Oh sure, second place at a PGA tournament is a pretty big accomplishment, as well. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Brian Davis placed more importance on how he lived than what he did. He has never won a PGA event, and had a chance last weekend. Tied at the end of the day, in a playoff with Furyk, a rare opportunity he may never have again, Davis could have caved in to the pressure for accomplishment. But he didn’t. And I think that’s pretty cool.

Of course, disciples of Jesus Christ need to think about what we do, and be sure that we’re doing good stuff, stuff that God wants us to be doing. But is it okay to do good stuff with a bitter, resentful attitude? 2 Corinthians 9 doesn’t say that God loves a grumpy giver, does it? In fact, Jesus tells us to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Doing good stuff is supposed to be like letting an inner light radiate outward into the world, a light that inspires people to worship God. That says to me that our demeanor (our attitude, our approach) is at least as important, if not actually more important than the particular action we happen to be taking at the time.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Preaching Thoughts

If I was going to say some things about preaching, I might say these:

- The best sermons are ones you can say in a sentence. Everything that happens in that sermon should illustrate, support, or elucidate that sentence.

- Preparing to preach and planning worship are the same thing. Sunday morning is all sermon. Everything has to fit together.

- The key to preaching better is to preach less often. If a preacher is preaching more than 40 times a year, it becomes a grind. Let someone else talk for a change, and take some weeks where you help lead worship but do not preach. It makes a huge difference.

- The best sermon feedback comes from your children. Especially if they are, say for example, 9 and 12 years old. But seriously, if you say something that sticks with teenagers, you have really said something.

- Life is sermon prep. But sermon prep is not life.

- Yes, use visuals - images on screen, props in hand, objects in the room, etc. No, do not use gimmicks. And know the difference - a visual enhances, a gimmick distracts.

- Practice out loud a lot.

- Frequently listen to and/or watch your self preach.

- Teach a Bible Study on the scripture you are using in the upcoming sermon on the Wednesday evening before you preach it.

- Be ready to throw the whole thing away and start over if something happens in your community, area, nation, or somewhere in the world that impacts people in a significant way and focus on that instead.

Just some thoughts. What would you add?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

What Peter Said...

It was a pretty bold move on Peter’s part, actually. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” he said. What made it bold was that he was speaking directly to the “human authority” at the time. He was taunting the lion while his head was in the lion’s mouth.

The apostles had been warned to NOT teach anyone about Jesus anymore in Jerusalem. And yet they had “filled Jerusalem” with “the whole message about his life.” And so, as the story in Acts 5 goes, they were again brought before the Jerusalem council to answer for their actions.

“We told you not to, but you went ahead and did!” the frustrated high priest says, sounding quite a bit like the parent of a toddler.

But this is no toddler. This is Peter, who used to be called Simon, back when he was a fisherman. But now he is the Rock, the guy Jesus said the church is going to be built on. And Peter looks right into the eyes of human authority and tells them that they don’t matter; he obeys another authority altogether.

Ironic, isn’t it? The authority that Peter is so boldly professing to follow is the very authority that the high priest himself is supposed to represent. So I’m sure that didn’t tick Caiaphas off or anything, did it? (Yeah, right.)

It’s even more radical, since the high priest of Jerusalem was in charge not only of the religious life of the people, but of their temporal life as well. He was the convener of the Sanhedrin, which held executive, legislative, and judicial authority. And he was installed by Rome, who didn’t really care who served, as long as they kept everything flowing toward Rome.

Peter may be looking at Caiaphas, but in a sense he is looking through Caiaphas directly into the face of Caesar himself.

It is a revolution in a sentence. We obey God, not you.

However …

I seem to remember a little snippet of Paul’s … may have been the Letter to the Romans … perhaps chapter 13 of said letter … hmm … what did that say again?

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

Right, of course this passage is about rulers who are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Just do good things, says Paul, and you won’t have any need to fear. All of those laws you follow, he goes on to say, are really just expressions of one overall rule: Love one another. “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

However you think about it, there seems to be a tension between what Peter said and what Paul wrote. And I think it is very, very important to note that tension, because it is precisely the kind of tension stirring in our nation these days. There is anger at the government, suspicion, distrust, and even threats of revolt. Duly elected representatives are threatened, spit on, and their offices are vandalized. Clearly this runs counter to what Romans 13 says.

On the other hand, those who are expressing this anger toward the government probably feel like Peter, standing up to an oppressive ruling class, at least in their perception. As far as I know, the people who seem to be the angriest see their anger as deeply patriotic and perfectly justified.

One of the big differences, of course, is that the government of the United States is nothing at all like the government of ancient Israel. Our transfer of power happens peacefully, every few years, when we go to the polls to vote. And we vote locally, as well as at the state and national levels. There is no foreign empire appointing puppet rulers to keep things under control.

At the same time, we should never forget that Pax Romana is not Shalom, and that means there will be a time for people of faith to stand against a government, acknowledging allegiance to a higher power. Along with that is the reality that we live in a global connection that calls us to be in solidarity with the poor who are routinely oppressed by ruthless governments, or at best totally ignored by inept or corrupt ones.

And so, there is the tension. Do we stand with Peter and obey God, or do we listen to Paul and obey earthly authority? As with so much of life, the answer really depends on the context, doesn’t it? It depends on what lies under the decision, our motivation, the “why” behind our action.

Is it for God’s sake? Is it for the sake of the Gospel? Is it for love? Truly? Real, grace-filled, unconditional, agape love? The kind of love that fulfills the law? If so, then whatever it is, you’ll probably be okay.