Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I Promise...

A year or two ago I wrote an article about a great Christmas song by Trans Siberian Orchestra.  It’s not Wizards in Winter or Christmas Eve Sarajevo, both of which you’ve likely heard on the radio at one point or another (when they weren’t playing Christmas Shoes, of course).  They’re good songs.  No, my favorite TSO song is my favorite because of some powerful lyrics, and it’s really worth another look:
Christmas time
On a cold December morning
All is calm
And the world is still asleep
Christmas lights
That have been caught without warning
Gently glitter on
Stars to wish upon
All the world is at peace
Christmas time and the year will soon be leaving
Cloaked in time till it's just a memory
Christmas stays if we don't forget its meaning
Days go quickly by
Years they multiply
And we go searching for thee
And the dream is still alive
From that first December morning
And it always will survive
As long as we can see
That the dreams we find in life
Are the dreams we tend to seek
And Christmas has its promises to keep
Christmas time
And the moments just beginning
From last night
When we'd wished upon a star
If our kindness
This day is just pretending
If we pretend long enough
Never giving up
It just might be who we are
On Christmas Eve we wish upon the Star of Bethlehem for Grace and Peace.  We long for the kindness and love we experience that night to take hold of our world, knowing all the while it won’t.  The ugly world is still there, waiting for Christmas to pass, and we wonder if our kindness was just pretending.  Still, the song suggests that “if we pretend long enough, never giving up, it just might be who we are.”  When I heard that song last Christmas and really digested it, I promised myself I would pretend.  I would never give up.  I would pretend that I was kind and forgiving and full of nothing but love until it was true.
Regular life ensued, and it shouldn’t have surprised me that I failed.  I’m human, after all.  Merely mortal.  I found that some days I could be kind and full of grace, but other days, well, other days were other days.  Difficult.  Fraught.  Frustrating and exhausting.
But then the song rolled around on my mp3 player again, and I heard these words as if for the first time: “and the dream is still alive from that first December morning, and it always will survive as long as we can see that dreams we find in life are the dreams we tend to seek—and Christmas has its promises to keep.”  The dream is still alive.  In me.  So long as I seek it.  Christmas will keep its promises.
I realized I had missed the most important words.  Never giving up.  Or I had misunderstood them.  Never giving up is not the same as never failing.  Never giving up means that when I fail I will try again.  I start by forgiving myself.  And then I seek the forgiveness of others.  I again pretend to be kind and forgiving, believing somewhere deep inside that if I pretend long enough, and if I never give up, it might be who I am.  That is the promise of Christmas—the promise of Christ.

Monday, November 30, 2015

I Got Shoes: Christmas Edition

Years ago, about this time of year, radio stations would play the occasional Christmas tune.  You’d smile on the inside, content in the gentle reminder of the season.  It was a simpler time.   Everybody loved Christmas music.  Unfortunately the radio folks noticed our collective affinity for Christmas songs, and followed the distinctly American axiom that if something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing, and 24/7 Christmas music was born.  Within a year, nearly all the stations had jumped on the band-sleigh with them.  Everyone except the country music stations and NPR.
It was during this time we learned just how few Christmas songs there are.  False.  We learned how many the radioheads know, which is about three (and one of them isn’t about Christmas so much as drinking beer with an old flame in a car because the bars are closed for Christmas Eve, which my friend Daniel tells me is patently absurd because all the bars in Decatur are open, and he’d like for you to join him in caroling at them this year). [1000 points for the first person to accurately identify title and composer of this song, and a bonus 1000 if you figure out how to make it never, ever play again].
But that is not the worst Christmas song of all time.  According to Frank Brock’s epic bad Christmas song tournament (I have the CD in my office if you’d like to listen), the title of worst Christmas Song Ever goes to the Christmas Shoes song.  About five or so  years ago I think it was, the radioheads decided we as a nation needed nothing more than to hear this, uh, compelling story of a young boy out to buy his mom some shoes in case she met Jesus that night.  How very Daniel Webster of him.  So they played this song.  Over and over.  And over.  And then again.  It was so “popular” that they made an equally abysmal movie out of it (starring, I believe, Frank Brock).  Truth is, it’s polarizing.  Some folks love it like Linus loves his blanket and look forward to its return as much as the Peanuts Christmas special. not one of those people.
In his excellent post, “The 5 Best Ways to Survive Christmas Shoes,” Jon Acuff says:
Don’t try to negotiate with it. Much like fear, the Christmas Shoes song cannot be beat with logic or rational thinking. Don’t waste time with questions like, “Where is this kid’s dad? Does he have a dad? Why shoes? Why not a Christmas dress? Why not a delicious bowl of queso? Has an 8 year old ever successfully purchased a women’s shoe in the history of mankind?”
There’s real wisdom in that.  It’s better not to question.  Unfortunately it got me wondering.  Vacuous theology aside, if we meet Jesus in whatever we die wearing, what would you like to be wearing when you meet Jesus?  What do you suppose would really impress Jesus?
How about that lovely Easter dress or suit you bought back in March?  After all, you bought it to celebrate His triumph over death, right?  Or maybe you’re worried that Jesus would rather see evidence of your servant heart.  Better put on that plastic apron you were wearing when you served on the line in the soup kitchen.  And maybe those plastic food service gloves for good measure.  Don’t cheat, now.  No fair saying, “Jesus wouldn’t care, because Grace.  It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing.”  That wasn’t the question.  If it did matter, what would you want to be wearing when you meet Jesus?
I believe Jesus would want us to wear whatever we usually wear.  “Come as you are,” he’d say.  Not because it doesn’t matter.  It does matter!  Jesus calls us to be exactly who we are.  We don’t have to dress up, and we don’t have to dress down.  What we do have to be is genuine.  It’s not about the coat we wear but the cloak we gave away with it.  It’s not the shoes we put on our feet, but the second mile we walk in them that that reveals the Christ within each of us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Planning and Flexibility

The second season of Modern Family began with an episode called “The Old Wagon.”  In that episode, the family wagon starts to roll down a hill toward a cliff.  Instead of jumping in to hit the brakes, Phil jumps on the hood, spread eagle.  Exasperated, Claire shouts, “What’s the plan, Phil?!”  Ever since, when I’m about to do something galacticly stupid, I can expect to hear, “What’s the plan, Phil?”  [Editor’s note: To be clear, proper placement of this quote is while the act of stupidity is ongoing.  If the act is complete, then a more appropriate quote would be, “You’re killing me, Smalls!”  1000 points for correctly identifying the movie and character for that quote in the comments.]
There seems a fine line between planning and flexibility.  On the one hand, careful planning before any endeavor can increase the chances of success.  On the other hand, flexibility and allowing the plan to change with the situation similarly increases the chances of success.  Balancing the two is critically important.  Dwight Eisenhower summed that up nicely when he said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  That said, I’m not sure planning and flexibility belong on the same continuum.  After all, the opposite of flexibility is not planning.  The opposite of flexibility is rigidity.  While it is certainly more common to find rigidity paired with prior planning and flexibility paired with a lack thereof, flexibility and rigidity exist separate from the planning process (another article for another time: the balance between planning and flying by the seat of your pants, because there is such a thing as over-planning, but flying by the seat of your pants is rarely a good idea).
Way back in sixth grade, one of my best teachers ever, Mrs. Menees, used to tell us the importance of flexibility.  She would encourage us to adapt in our environment as it changed around us.  She was exceedingly patient, but she would not accept excuse, and she would not tolerate rigidity.  At the same time, she would never suggest that flexibility is an excuse for a lack of planning and thoughtful consideration.  The combination of flexibility and planning is powerful indeed, and is one of the great keys to success in any venture.  I should really track Mrs. Menees down and buy her a cheeseburger (as she used to do for us on occasion).  She likely has no idea how profoundly important that lesson was or how deeply I internalized it years later.  [Editor’s note: 1000 points to Mrs. Menees and also Ms. White/Mrs. Reddick for dealing with me in sixth grade.  1000 points also to the first person to get this message to them.]
I apply this to music ministry all the time.  I plan events carefully, considering the people involved (audience and musicians alike).  I think through the logistics as completely as I know how from preparation to execution to followup.  I seek input on the process and the events, and together with my own notes, I work to improve on the events in the future or let them go if they were ineffective.  Nevertheless, at all points in the process, I adapt to the environment as the plan plays out.  I continually evaluate the plan and modify it as needed to accommodate variables.  You might say I plan to be flexible.  Planning that way allows me to accommodate even more on the run when things get crazy, probably because like Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This Is Not a Post About the Church

Over the last several weeks I’ve been running an experiment of sorts.  It’s not scientific in any way, and in all honesty I didn’t even set out to do it on purpose.  I saw an interesting pattern a while back and started paying attention to it.  Specifically, I’ve been paying attention to responses to posts on FaceBook.
As a church nerd, I find posts about the church interesting.  These include research about attendance patterns and posts about worship in society.  They include personal experience and advice based on what is working—and what isn’t.  So I reposted these, usually with a comment and a question.
As a music director, I love posting pictures and writing about what our music ministry is doing.  Sometimes these posts are pictures of something we’ve already done.  Sometimes they are advertisements for something we’re doing to do.  When I post these, I usually add a brief comment along with them.
The pattern I noticed is that there is always (without exception so far) a much greater response to the latter kind of post.  My friends see what we’re doing, and they “like” it.  Friends of friends see what we’re doing, and they “like” it too.  It’s a veritable “like fest.”  And people comment.  Response to engaging questions about church polity and trends is typically limited by comparison.
Which is not to say you can’t find lively discussion about those church nerd articles.  If you get enough church nerds together, those exchanges can get downright spirited.  But they never have the seemingly magic appeal of a picture of a bunch of kids on stage with a guy dressed as a clock.
And it’s not just the participants and parents themselves.  If you take a look at who “likes” these things, it’s people from all over.  Friends and family, church family and Church family, people are inspired by seeing folks engaged and active.
It makes sense, I guess.  Take the beer out of someone’s hand, put him on an inner-tube and give him a good hard shove.  Post the resulting video.  Marvel at how many people watch it, like it, and share it.  That’s better entertainment than a six-pack and a bug zapper.  But when was the last time you saw a viral post about church polity in the 21st century?  It’s not that nobody cares.  Make no mistake: lots of people care about church polity in the 21st century!  The problem here is that the people who care about church polity in the 21st century are already in the church.
It’s not that we need to talk less, and it’s not that we need to do less.  A week or two ago I made the case that we need more talking and more doing.  But when we talk, we need to talk about things that matter in the world.  And when we do, we need to do things that matter.  People who aren’t coming to church right now don’t care about the research.  If they come into church and hear a business plan for growing attendance and coffers, they will walk out again, dooming that very plan to failure like so many before it.  As my friend Jonathan pointed out not long ago, our culture is increasingly placing a premium on authenticity, which is probably a good thing for the church, even if it leads to painful pruning.
Whether talking or doing, Christ was about people.  He met them where they were and profoundly impacted their lives.  No polling.  No strategy sessions with the disciples to grow attendance.   If Christ is our model, we should do the same.  Not for influence or statistical excellence, but for the love of God.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Rule #2 applies. This is not a post about Starbucks.

Lisa’s parents came to visit us for the weekend a few weeks ago.  One of the preparations we made was to move the kids’ booster seats to the back row of the van.  While Lisa’s parents can still get both into and out of the back seats in the van, it’s much easier for the kids.  The kids loved it so much they have stayed back there.
While a quieter ride in the front seats is nice, the new seating arrangement is not without drawbacks.  The kids now sit closer together than they did, meaning they can “reach out and touch each other.”  [1000 points for correctly identifying that slogan]  It’s also more difficult for us to hear.  That means we can’t hear the earlier parts of disagreement and defuse them.  We often don’t hear disagreement until it has escalated to the point of outright warfare back there.  All of a sudden I understand why parents might say, “Don’t make me stop this car,” though I haven’t said that yet.
It’s not just in the back of the van either.  While the children are getting ready for bed, I hear the pandelerium.   So I go up there.
“Wesley hit me.”
“Wesley, did you hit her?”
“Yes, but…”
[interrupting] “Did you hit her?”
“Yes, but…”
[again] “Did you hit her?”
“Thank you.  Don’t do that.  Ever.  There will never be a good enough reason to hit your sister.” [to Lucy] “Why did he hit you?”
“Well, Wesley...”
“No.  Why did he hit you?”
“Well, he…”
“No.  Why did he hit you?”
“Because I wouldn’t share the toothpaste.  But he was calling me names.”
“Ok.  I told him to brush his teeth.  You can’t keep him from following my directions.” [to both children] You were told to get ready for bed, and neither of you are.  That is not ok.  You can only control you.  If you are not getting ready for bed, you will have consequences.  It will not matter what the other is doing.  Do you understand?”
“Yes, but…”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes.” (and most of the time, bedtime unfolds without further incident)
The problem here is escalation, and it’s human nature.  Our desire to win the argument overpowers our desire to resolve the issue successfully.  A company decides to use plain red cups with a logo for its drinks.  Some folks decide this is a war on Christmas.  Some other folks decide Jesus disagrees about the war on Christmas.  The internet blows up.  If any of those folks were my kids, I’d say, “You are not doing what you were told to do, and that is not ok.”  Because no, we were not told to boycott Starbucks.  But you know what, you also weren’t told to condemn people who boycott Starbucks.  YOU CAN ONLY CONTROL YOU SO DO WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO. 
It’s true even when the stakes are much higher.  Every day there’s a new video of police brutality.  Some folks decide cops are heavy-handed and racist.  Some other folks decide if people would just do what they were told the cops would be neither heavy-handed nor racist.  The internet blows up.  Just this morning I was watching the latest such video.  There was the cop who had asked the person to step out of the apartment.  There was the guy who refused to comply.  The problem is that  neither one sought to solve the problem.  The encounter shifted from resolving the issue to “winning” the fight.  The cop could easily have talked with the guy in the door of his apartment.  The guy could have stepped out into the hallway.  Nobody had to be tazed.  Nobody had to be wrestled.  Either person could have prevented it.  Let me be clear: brutality is never, ever ok.  Perpetrators of brutality should be held accountable.  But 99.9% of the time, all it would take is one of the two parties to decide peaceful resolution is more important than pride to prevent tragedy that occurs when two people begin fighting in the presence of life-ending hardware.
The difficulties of our world are far too complex to be solved by blame and finger-pointing.  Rule number 2 applies: it’s not that simple.  We have all had roles in creating them in the first place, and we must all accept our responsibility for resolving them.  The first step in that difficult process will be accepting that we have control of nobody in this world but ourselves and doing what we are supposed to do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

More Talking. More Doing. There's power in both.

One of my favorite scenes from Life of Brian is a scene in which the People’s Front of Judea is having a meeting to take action.  In this scene, each member of the committee in turn speaks emphatically on the importance of taking immediate action.  “It’s action that counts, and not words.  Right now we need action!”  “Here, here!”    Things change...not at all...when Judith comes in and informs the committee that Brian is about to be crucified.  “Right.  This calls for immediate discussion!”  I’d tell you to watch the movie, but it honestly hits a little too close to home for many Methodists.  It might trigger painful flashbacks.  (If you still want to see it, you can find it here.) 
Yes, the church has a somewhat storied history of talking and not doing.  Some have pointed to that reality as one of the causes of the church’s present decline.  Many have come to believe that the church (and all the people in it) talk a lot about serving and loving and being the hands of Christ but fail miserably at actually serving and loving and being the hands of Christ.  In a world that increasingly values authenticity, the perception of duplicity is troubling.
It’s not just in the church.  For a while Home Depot’s slogan was “Less talking.  More doing.”  Stop talking about painting that living room and paint it!  (And we have the tools you need, of course!).  Yes we are wired to admire action even as we struggle with our own animal desire to sit on the sidelines.
I touched on this last week in my article that was [not] about the Future Story of Decatur First UMC.  We’ve been talking now for more than a year, I said.  Now is the time, I said.  And I stand by those statements, if for no other reason than to counteract the prevailing belief that the Church is losing relevance while its members do nothing but talk about the problems.
I noticed that some time ago Home Depot has changed its slogan.  It is now “More Saving.  More Doing.”  I can think of a number of reasons why they might have done that.  It’s nice to say in your slogan that people will save money by shopping with you.  And it’s good for folks to see two things that describe you.  Moreover, they keep that “Git ‘er Dun” edge by saying “More Doing!”
I wonder, though, if they removed “Less Talking” because of people like me.  Yeah, I got up and painted my hallway.  But maybe if I’d done a little more talking I’d have made sure I painted it the right color!  Talking is planning.  Talking is clarifying goals and purposes.  Talking allows for other points of view and arguments and understanding.  At its best, talking facilitates harmony.
Talking without doing risks a lifetime of inaction.  Doing without talking risks a lifetime of wasted action.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  On the contrary, they are mutually supportive.  As is so often the case, balance is key: it is critical to maintain the proper tension between the two.  Talking and doing must constantly tug ‘o war...and neither can be allowed to win.
Our delicate dance, then, is to continue talking with each other—both for the purposes of relationship building and future-discerning—while at the same time experiencing an awakening.  And, if we are at our best, we will fall neither silent nor still again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

This Is Not an Article About Our Future Story

One of my best friends likes to make “non-posts” on Facebook whenever news comes out.  “This is not a post about John Boehner.”  “This is not a post about the dangers of eating bacon.”  Once I wrote a post that said, “This is not a post about Greg Stewart.”  You can see why we get along so well.
It’s been a long thirteen months at Decatur First.  We’ve talked about where we were.  We’ve talked about where we are.  We’ve talked about where we’re going.  Since August or so, it seems like every Sunday we hear something about our “Future Story.”  That all culminated a couple of weeks ago when we experienced a presentation of our future story in a unified worship service, and the process turned in a new direction: the future story map.
This has been an excellent, excellent experience for our church.  We have gained insight on the areas we need to improve.  More importantly, the church has identified its calling, its direction, it’s purpose.  People are pumped up about it.  Woohoo!
I’ve been thinking lately that continuing to refer to the “future story” may be problematic.  If the story is always in the future, how will we ever get there?  The answer is that our future is not a set path.  Rather it is flexible as each tomorrow changes based on our choices today.  Still, we are calling it a future story, so for me that answer somewhat misses the point.
So this is not an article about our future story.  [Editor’s note: I really want to put a long quote from Spaceballs here, but it’s only tangentially related.  You can earn 1000 points by emailing me about the scene in question.]  The future, as they say, is now.  This is an article about now.  We have decided together that God is calling us to build relationships with each other and with the community and with God.  We have decided together that God is calling us to use our gifts out of love for other people.  Now is the time to begin doing just that.  Don’t wait for the future!
How can you do that?  Do you know everyone in the choir?  Do you know their names?  Do you know who they are?  If you don’t, go up to someone you don’t know much about and ask.  Then listen to the answer.  Each person in our choir (and indeed in our church) has an interesting story to tell.  I guarantee it.  Getting to know each other is a great place to start.
And then what about our community?  Many of you have told me that a lot of your friends are already in the choir or in the church.  But how many people do you see on a daily basis?  I’d be willing to bet that each person you see has a great story to tell too!  Take a risk.  Ask.  Be interested.  Care.  I believe that the message of the Christ is that we must care about our neighbors (and of course he defined neighbors as...everyone).  It’s not just handing the homeless guy a couple of bucks or a bag of chips.  It’s not smiling and holding the door for the person behind you.  It’s embracing the stories people have to tell and celebrating the value of each person you encounter.
What about God?  For ourselves, we can show up.  We can give God an hour (or two and a half hours) each week.  For others, we can remember Christ’s assurance that what we do for the least, we do for him.  If ours are the hands of Christ for them, then they will be closer to God.
It’s not about growing our church, and it never has been.  If it is, we should go ahead and shut the doors now!  It’s about allowing the grace of God to flow through us.  Through our hands.  Through our gifts.  It’s loving and giving and caring more than we ever thought we could.  It’s about being who Christ calls us to be.  This is our story.  This is our song.  Not some time in the future, but right now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Future of Decatur First

October 21, 2015.  This is a significant date in the life of dorks everywhere.  It’s “Back to the Future Day.”  In the second movie, when Marty heads to the future to keep his son from making a huge mistake, he arrives on this very date.
Today, in recognition of the date, and also because the last two weeks have been about as insane as December in our church, a few of us on staff decided to watch the full Back to the Future marathon.  We started at about 9am and watched all three movies.  I love them just as much as I remember!
More than a few of us are wondering where our hoverboards are.  Where are our power laces and self-drying coats?  Where are the flying cars?  How about the holographic billboards?  Indeed one of the best parts of watching the movies is enjoying all the differences between the times in the films.  The clothes people wear.  Their hair.  The cars.  The houses.  Past, present, and future (now past again!).  Blacksmiths, dirty water, and insufficient technology even to make ice.  Convertibles, poodle skirts, and early rock and roll.  1985 (which is all I’m going to say about that.  And of course a fanciful future filled with all the aforementioned devices we wish existed (yes, Janice, I want the gadget that puts people to sleep for a while too).  The worlds are so different.
Or are they?
It seems to me one of the points of the movies is that while the scenery changes, much of the human condition remains the same.  They make this point in many not-too-subtle ways.  They have the same actors play the roles throughout (except for the girlfriend, which they try very hard to make you forget).  Many of those roles are consistent archetypal roles: the villain, the hero, the scientist, the dog.
Some of this continuity provides comic relief at the same time.  In the first movie, Marty’s mom decries girls who are too “forward” with boys, but we find out this is probably because in high school she was the epitome of “forward” when she asks Marty to a dance...and then wants to “park” with him, drink, and smoke (no, this is not a choir tour appropriate movie, I’m afraid).  There is always poverty.  And drug abuse.  And bad tempers.
There have always been bullies, and there will always be.  We have always been struggling to find courage within ourselves to be the better us, and we always will.  Moreover, being bullies will inevitably lead us to our own destruction, while being the best us is ultimately more fulfilling (even if at the time it’s hard to see it that way).  Love has always been and will always be a powerful motivator that at once leads us to play foolish games and strive above all else for the good of the one we love.
Christopher Lloyd, in a short clip circulating on the internet, says, “The future has finally arrived.  Yes, it is different than we all thought.  But don’t worry, it just means your future hasn’t been written yet.  No one’s has.  Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”  Inspirational words.
Our future is not defined by the world around us.  It’s not defined by our gadgets and gizmos.  Instead of hoverboards to ride on we carry computers in our hands.  While in the movies we find cars that don’t need roads, we in this 2015 find cars that don’t need gas.  These tools enhance our existence, but they don’t confine it.  As Christopher Lloyd reminds us, our future is whatever we make it.  It is ours to make good.
All this talk about the future is even more important for Decatur First UMC at this moment as we begin our journey into the future God has laid ahead of us.  There are so many ways to define us: our building, our finances, our programs, etc.  Indeed our future story team looked 10 years into the future last Sunday and took a stab at what some of those things will look like.  I suspect that, like the movie, some of their guesses will be right on the money.  Others may look silly.  Regardless, from this time to that, we as a church will choose how to be in the world.  We can choose to bully.  We can choose to find the better us.  We can choose to be motivated by love.  It is we, not our world, that will choose destruction or fulfillment.  Free will means the future of DFUMC will be whatever we make it.  So let’s make it a good one.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On Time

Tick.  Tock.  Tick.  Tock.  Tick.  Tock.  My office is quiet.  Time is passing.  Various deadlines loom large: a concert in two days.  Porchfest.  This.  That.  But in the middle of all that, my clock.  Tick.  Tock.  Tick.  Tock.  It’s the only sound in my office until...
...a car.  Down Commerce Street.  I wonder where he’s going.  Or she.  Another car.  And another.  A rustle of papers from across the hall; Mitch is cleaning his office.  It occurs to me that all the people I know are doing something at this very second.  Where are they?  What are they thinking of?  Is it hot?  Cold?  Have they noticed the temperature?  Maybe it’s comfortable.  I don’t know.
What I know is my world.  Right here.  I know I’m neither hot nor cold.  I know what I’m smelling and seeing.  I know where I have to go, and I know where I have been.  This morning I was at my house.  I had a little talk with myself in the mirror.  Nothing important.  I might have made a few faces at myself.  But I don’t know where you were.  I don’t know what you were doing.  All I know is that for both of us, the clock.  Was. Ticking.
For a lot of people that’s ominous.  Every second past is a second closer to our end.  And I guess that’s true to one extent or another.  The logical conclusion is that we should choose very carefully how we use our seconds, because each one is a non-refundable investment.  You’ve probably read that article before.  If you bought into it, you may already be regretting that you’ve decided to read this one.  Good news.  This isn’t that article again (though honestly I can’t promise you it’s any better use of your time).
What realities unite all of humanity?  Birth.  Death.  Taxes.  Time.  Those are the easy ones.  Are there others?
Faith.  Belief in something.  Maybe God.  Maybe NOT God.  Even people who claim belief in nothing nevertheless believe in something, if only believing in their own self-sufficiency.  Love.  Love of others?  Love of self?  Love of something?  Love of an ideal, even if it is absent?  There are more, of course.  Animal desires, even if some are better at squelching them than others.  And needs.  Universal needs.  Ever-present even if buried so deep and burning so dimly that they are imperceptible even to ourselves.
We have much in common.  As much as we have in difference or even more.  Science tells us that our DNA is 99.9% similar from person to person.  But despite those similarities.  Despite our commonality, we are most inclined to focus instead on those things that divide us.  That makes sense, really.  We want to be unique.  We want to separate ourselves.  Ironically we are unified by our need to be unique.
But in a garden full of fruit we can’t resist the apple.  We go beyond exploring our diversity when we allow it to divide us, or when we use it to divide ourselves.  The foot says, “I am not an eye.”  We create a symbolic world in which order matters.  And then we place ourselves in order, blind ourselves to those below us, and set about moving up at any cost.
Enter Christ, who taught us the importance of embracing unity in our diversity.  Not that we are all identical, no.  Rather it is precisely our fundamental unity that allows us to embrace our diversity.  It is our reliance on others that allows us to become who we are.  Our unifying trust in each other allows us to explore our diversity.  We are one body in the one Lord.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Keep It Simple

Back in college, I had a music theory/history teacher who had the amazing ability to improvise in the style of any composer.  It’s not that he could play something written by any composer (though I’m certain he could).  No, he would just flat make stuff up as he went along, and you’d swear it was Bach or Mozart or Rachmaninoff.  He’d always say, “Let’s just write some Mozart...he won’t care because he’s dead.”
He could do that because each composer has something of a voice.  Traits that make them who they are.  Composers today are no different.  There’s a reason, for example, that people say Morton Lauridsen only wrote one song.  Lately even Eric Whitacre has been accused of the same.  And over the last few days I’ve been listening to film scores again.  Gosh, Glory sounds a lot like Titanic and Braveheart.  James Horner is James Horner.  Hans Zimmer is Hans Zimmer.  You hear about a bar and a half and think, “well gosh, this sounds a lot like…”  And usually you’re right.
I’ve said before it’s good they only let me preach once a year, because if I preached any more often everyone would know I only have one sermon.  Some pastors will go farther and tell you the Bible really only has a handful of sermons to offer if you boil them down to the bare, bare essentials.  While that may be something of an exaggeration, I nevertheless take the point.
Even Jesus really didn’t have much in the way of sermonic material really.  In the end, he summed it all up—the whole law and prophets and his own teachings—by saying you should love God and neighbor.  And by the way your neighbor is everyone.  If you boil them down, both the stories about him and his stories about others fit nicely into that single directive.
That’s one of the great paradoxes of the Christ: his mandate is at once simple and impossible.  All we have to do is love everyone.  But how in the world are we to love everyone?
That said, we get into trouble when we try to make it harder or more complicated.  It makes me wonder if we were ever supposed to unpack it in the first place.  Is it so hard to accept that our call is to love, and not really all that much more?  Why does it have to be so hard?  Because life seems so darn complicated.  We weave tangled webs.  Our complex problems seem to elude the relatively simple answers and directives of Christ.
Most often simply applying Christ’s commandment to love God and neighbor shines the light on the best way forward.  Consider that next time you have a disagreement in what seems a hopeless mess of a situation.  Leave the complexity behind for a moment and ask yourself only what the loving way forward is.  To me, that is the miracle of the Christ.  That is making the rough places plain.  And that is what leaves me fulfilled when I put my head on my pillow at the end of a long day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Do Over!

Ah, back in the day.  A nice game of pickup football in the front yard.  Don’t laugh—I may have been chosen last every time, but I was on the field.  Those were the good times.  The offense huddles, and the complex play is unfurled by the tenacious quarterback: “Ok, everyone just get open.  I’ll throw it to you.”  Break.
It’s a five Mississippi rush with no blitz.  The quarterback drops back and says, “Hut,” after which we all take off down the field.
One Mississippi.
Chris Doolittle trips on his way to the end zone, but don’t count him out just because he fell down.  The play is still developing.
Two Mississippi.
I’m open!  I’m open!  Mostly because I took three steps and then turned around.  The quarterback ignores me because there are no first downs in front yard football, and I’m not exactly known for picking up yards after the catch.  Actually I’m not known for making the catch either.
Three Mississippi.
Up the field, two of our players have arrived in the end zone along with about six of theirs.  Front yard quarterbacks are not known for their accuracy, so he needs to wait for the odds to improve before letting it fly.
Four Mississippi.
I’m still open.  Two more of our players have made it to the end zone.  Chris Doolittle has recovered and is running across the field now.  The quarterback wishes Chris was in the end zone because Chris is taller than anyone else.
Five Mississippi.
The rush is on.  Two defenders take aim at the quarterback.  He drops back.  He drops back more.  Doolittle is running back toward the quarterback, who gets absolutely clobbered.  The ball sails through the air.  Doolittle makes a miraculous catch and heads up the field, getting tackled on about the one yard line.
“No, no, no!  He was down back here.  I got him!”  The defense claims they got the quarterback down before he could get the ball away.  “No way.  My knee wasn’t down.”  Argument ensues.  He really was down, but that doesn’t matter.  The shouting continues until someone, tired of all the nonsense, yells, “Do over!”
Ah, the do-over.  The nuclear option of front yard sports.  The play is negated.  No big gain for the offense.  No sack for the defense.  No loss of down.  We just line up and do it all again.  It’s the only fair way to settle the dispute because we don’t have instant replay.  And deep inside we all know the outcome really doesn’t matter like it does in “real games.”
How many times since then have I wanted a do-over?  A harsh word, a brash action.  An email that shouldn’t have been sent.  So many times I’ve been less than my best and wanted nothing more than to walk back to the original line of scrimmage and try it again.  But words can’t be unsaid.  Actions can’t be undone.
Still, there is grace.  And there is forgiveness.  Though the unkind word cannot be unsaid, I can be forgiven by the one I have wronged—or the One I have wronged.  Forgiveness extended is the offer of a do-over even when it isn’t deserved.  The sunset on yesterday and the sunrise of today offers a do-over of its own—a chance to be a better me.  A chance to step back to the line, snap the ball, and make a better choice.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Why Don't You Make Me? (Music Sunday 2015 Sermon)

Ask anyone who learned English as a second language.  English is weird.  It’s just odd.  There are rules that seemingly exist solely to be broken.  Moreover, there’s all this weirdness just with the words themselves.  We’ve got homophones.  These are words sound the same but are spelled differently.  The capitol building is in the state capital.  The principals have principles.  We’ve got homographs.  These words are spelled the same but are pronounced differently.  You have to be close to close the door.  I had to bow to tie the bow.  Sometimes we mix all those up.  Last time I did that I had to desert my dessert in the desert.  We’re parking on the driveway.  We’re driving on the parkway.  Dogs and cats living together.  Mass hysteria.
>Many of our words have multiple definitions, too.  Meaning we can spruce up the spruce tree.  We can suit ourselves by wearing a suit.  We can pay a fair price to go to attend a fair in a fair city.  “Make” is another one of those words.  Make can mean to coerce or cause by use of force.  Like when we were younger my brother would change the channel, I’d tell him to change it back, and he’d say, “Why don’t you make me?”  But make can also mean constructing, or putting together.  Like when I make dinner or even make a mess (I’ll leave you to guess which of those I do more often).
What’s especially odd about the word “make” is that the two definitions almost seem to contradict each other.  When you use force to make someone do something, it involves breaking them down in order to have your way.  Like if I punched my brother in the face to gain access to the remote control.  On the other hand, if you make dinner, you’re building.  You’re putting things together to make something new and useful.
That can cause a real problem when you’re looking at scripture like today’s.  Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”  Make disciples.  So are we to go to all the nations and punch them in the face until they come to Christ?  Don’t laugh.  Christians have done far worse than that in the name of making disciples.  And physical violence isn’t even the only coercive tactic.  The church has, from time to time, used fear as well.  Fear of ostracism.  Fear of Divine retribution or eternal condemnation.  All of these things aim to break an individual to the will of Christ.  I’m just not sure that’s how Christ works.  The other definition is far more consistent with the Christ we meet through the gospels.  Fashioning people into something new and better.  Creating disciples.  Not breaking them down but rather building them up.  But which is right?
Sometimes the Greek can help us out.  Greek tends to be a more specific language.  There are, for example, four different words for “love,” allowing the writer to put a much finer point on the message.  In the original Greek, the word for “make” is not present in the Great Commission!  Mathéteuó (math-ayt-yoo’-o), translated “make disciples” in the NRSV, is better translated “teach” or “disciple.”  While coercion and fear can be used to force obedience, they are not effective tools for teaching. 
It’s like working with choirs.  If there’s a section that is flat, punching them in the face will not help correct the problem.  Force breeds mistrust, and especially in a volunteer group, people pretty quickly figure out the best way to avoid force is to leave entirely.  No, if we are to make disciples, then we are to build them, working with them patiently and in a spirit of love and care.
But we can’t stop there, because that’s vague.  How exactly do we do that?  Just the other day on Facebook I ran across this gem: “It takes more than a busy church, a friendly church, or even an evangelical church to impact a community for Christ.  It must be a church ablaze, led by leaders who are ablaze for God.”  What does that mean, anyway?  It’s vague, and because it’s vague it isn’t very helpful.  If only there were some place we could turn that would tell us how to build disciples…
A few weeks ago, Jason preached on Matthew 4:18-22, where Jesus called Peter and Andrew.  Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”  Bringing the Greek to bear again, the word for “make,” is poieó (poy-eh’-o), and it is best translated as “making them fit” or “qualifying them.”  So Jesus is not going to coerce them into being fishers of people.  He’s going to build them into fishers of people.  But that’s not actually the most important part.  We’ve already decided that we need to build people into disciples rather than forcing them at knife-point.  We’re in search of clear instructions for making disciples.
Matthew tells us that Peter and Andrew were casting a net into the lake because they were fishermen, after which he tells us that Jesus said he would make them fishers of people.  They were fishermen, and Jesus called them to fish for people.  That’s important because it gives us an idea of how we’re supposed to build disciples.  We’re supposed to use the gifts we’ve been given for people.
Today is Music Sunday.  It’s a day when we celebrate the gift of music, and it’s a day when we celebrate the people who use their gift of music to move hearts for the cause of Christ.  It’s as if Jesus came to the lakeshore and said, “Follow me, and I will make you sing for people.”  Music is our gift.  Our commission is to use it to build disciples.
We do that in the church.  We rehearse.  We come into this room and lift our voices in praise.  But we can’t stop there, and we don’t.  We call it Music in Mission.  We take our music out of here.  Locally.  Regionally.  Nationally.  Children.  Youth.  Adults.  Seniors.  We sing our songs first, then we listen.  And we care. 
Eight years ago, in Savannah, Georgia, I was with the youth choir singing in a children’s home for at-risk kids and youth, many of whom had been removed from their homes but were not able to be placed in foster care.  After we sang, the choir and the residents played games together while we waited for dinner to be prepared.  When we sat down for dinner, one of the residents said to me, “How do you do it?  People come in here and do this all the time.  Singing to us like we’re in some kind of prison or something.  But you get us.  You’re with us.  How do you do that?”  I had no answer for her.  When we got back on the bus, one of my youth said, “John, can we just stay here for the whole week instead of going to the beach?”  And that was the answer.  They cared.  That…that is working patiently and in a spirit of love.  That is making disciples in response to the call of Christ.
You have a gift.  It may not be fishing and it may not be singing.  You may not know what it is right now.  You may not even like it if you do.  But through the Spirit you have a gift.  The call of Christ for you is to use it for people.  That’s not vague.  It’s crystal clear.  You have a gift.  Use it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Taking Care of Business

As I was walking into a business the other day, I noticed a sign.  “No public restrooms.”  I was relieved (pun not intended, but enjoyed nevertheless) because I’m not sure I’d want to use a restroom where everyone could see.  I soon realized they meant something different.  They were saying there wasn’t a restroom in their facility (again, pun not intended but enjoyed) that I could use.
As you know, my mind is a strange place, and it occurred to me that you don’t have to advertise bathrooms.  People have a need for bathrooms, and they will come looking for them.  So many people, it would seem, that if you don’t have one, you’re forced to advertise that fact!  Some places of business (ok, I’m starting to intend some of these puns) are aware of the general public’s need for restrooms and use them as a means of attraction.  “Cleanest bathrooms on Route 66.”  “Last clean bathroom for 200 miles because don’t even think about using the ones at the truck stop next door...ew.”
Point is, people regularly need a bathroom.  If that need is ignored, it will only become more and more urgent.  The longer you ignore it, the more it occupies (heh) your thoughts so that eventually you can’t think of anything other than finding a bathroom (and heck, at that point you’ll use the bathroom at the truck stop next door because LET ME IN THE BATHROOM NOW!!!).
Funny thing about our need of the bathroom, though.  We aren’t born knowing that we need it.  That’s why diapers are a thing.  At some point we become aware of feelings associated with needing to use the bathroom, at which time parents help us interpret those feelings as a need to use the bathroom.  That connection becomes so hard-wired that our mind eventually equates the two, and going to the bathroom without going to the bathroom starts to seem odd.  For those of you (probably male) thinking, “I don’t need a bathroom, hahaha,” I’d ask you why you typically look for a tree.  One might even argue that the need for a bathroom is actually artificial, created by society because...ew.  I disagree.  It is well documented the unsanitary conditions resulting from a complete disregard for bathrooms is not tenable in the long term.
So we need bathrooms, and we know we need them.  And as a result, nobody has to advertise them.  They just have to provide them.
I am aware of my need for God.  I know when I feel distant.  The more I try to ignore that need, the more present it becomes in my mind.  I can experience God at church, and in that experience I can find the joy of relief.
I was at a sign store today looking at the cost of signs to advertise our Christmas concert.  Looking around the room at all the different signs, I was struck by how much churches spend on signs...on advertising.   I can understand why.  People need to know about special things coming up, after all.  But then I realized that no amount of money spent on advertising can address the real problem.  People know the church is here.  You can’t miss the steeple.  Poll 100 people who don’t come to church.  I’ll bet 95 of them could tell you that if you walk in the church at 11 on Sunday morning you’ll find some kind of worship service.  Ask the same 100 people if they need the church.  95 of them will tell you they don’t.  Ask the same 100 people if they need to be loved, accepted, and supported.  73 will tell you they do.  27 will lie either because they don’t know or because they don’t want to admit they need support.
If God is unbridled love and acceptance, all people need God.  God is what sets the church apart from everything else the community has to offer.  But people don’t yet know that is what they need, and people don’t yet know the church is where you find it, in part because you actually can’t find it at far too many churches.  If this is true, then evangelism takes on something of a different shape:
1. We must ensure that our church meets the universal need for love and acceptance.
2. We must help people identify their universal need for love and acceptance (evangelism?).
3. We must show people that need can be met in our church (discipleship?).
We won’t even need to advertise.  If people feel the need for God, if they hunger and thirst for it, they will seek it out.  Because LET ME INTO MY CHURCH RIGHT NOW!!!