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!!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Commercials and Christianity

Professional football has started up again, and you know what that means: thousands of people have begun the countdown to the biggest event of the year, the Super Bowl.  They’re not counting down because this year has a very cool Roman Numeral (L).  They’re counting down because they can’t wait to see—the outstanding teams take the field?  No.  The impressive halftime show?  No.  The fans who paint themselves unnatural colors and drink a lot of beer in the name of encouraging their players?  No.  (Aside, the song playing in the background right now on my computer is “Colors of the Wind,” which is startling appropriate given that last sentence)
No, people everywhere are counting down to the Super Bowl so they can watch the commercials.  Ok, ok.  Let me go ahead and grant you that the commercials aren’t what they used to be, though I’m not sure why because they pay just as much or even more for the time.  Still, they’ve lost their luster. 
What makes a good commercial anyway?  Is it just a memorable hook?  I don’t think so.  I’ve seen plenty of commercials that I would have said, “Wow that was awesome,” and then promptly forget what it was advertising.  Was it a luxury car or a jeweler or a cologne.  Aw crud I can’t remember.
This is why I am a HUGE fan of Geico commercials.  I don’t know who they have writing over there, but she isn’t paid nearly enough.  Why?  Because every time I see a Geico commercial, I remember not just the commercial itself but also that it’s a commercial for Geico!  Cave Men.  The Gecko.  Celebrity Assist Commercials.  And lately the Golf Announcer Commercials (I love the one with the Kraken.  “Looks like he’s going to go with a 9-iron here, I don’t think that’s going to be enough club.”).
Anyway, the point is that for a commercial to be really good, it can’t just be entertaining or memorable.  People have to associate the commercial with your product so that when they are looking for something like your product they already know your name.  They think, “I need to save 15% or more on my car insurance...who could I call...oh, Geico of course!”
So I’ve been continuing to think about our church’s decision to focus on mission and what this means for those of us who are already here.  In the coming months we’ll gain a clearer and clearer understanding of the future into which God is calling us.  One way or another, though, I feel confident we’re going to have to consider how we interact in the world around us.
Seems to me like we can learn something from the commercials here.  First, we have to live a life that is memorable to others.  Not memorable like we dress up like Taylor Swift and sing sea chanties on the square or anything.  Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  People will never forget that you made them laugh (Geico).  People will never forget that you held their hand.  As Janice said a month or two ago in her sermon, people will never forget when you listened and said nothing more than, “Me too.”  In short, you make them feel whole.  You don’t have to shout it from the mountaintops.  In fact, in the world of today, a lot of the unchurched have grown to mistrust the folks who shout the loudest.  And we have to do this for everyone.  Not just our friends and family, but the people we encounter all the time in the routine of daily life.
But there’s more to it than that.  People will remember you made them feel whole.  At some point, though, you’ll need to tell them why.  Why did you treat them in that way?  It wasn’t because you wanted them to become a member of the church.  It wasn’t because you wanted them to come and contribute.  It was because being a Christian, to us, means that we love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Living into that call authentically means reaching out and making people feel whole.  Making disciples means helping them understand why—and helping them understand that even in their brokenness, (or as Janice suggested, especially because of their brokenness), they can make people feel whole too.  And our church is a haven for people who believe answering Christ’s call means doing just that.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Numbers Lie

Do you know there are some places in the country where if you ask how far it is they give distance in miles?  It’s true.  You say, “How far is it from your house to work?”  They say, “About five miles.”  It’s a little more complicated here in Atlanta, where the answer to that question is given not in miles but in minutes.  And it’s usually not just one answer.  Generally the answer to that question requires a volume roughly the size of the “QXYZ” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia (1000 points to anyone who messages me on Facebook that you have ever physically touched a World Book Encyclopedia, and 1000 more if you still own one.  Hanna Scott, this is a dated reference).  Anyway, the answer usually includes different estimates in minutes based on traffic, time of the day, and weather.  Almost always the answer includes a horror story as well of “that time it took me 6 hours to go 3 miles because of the chicken feed spill on this or that major roadway.”  The point is that statistics are only good if they represent meaningful data.  Giving distance in Atlanta in miles is, most of the time, not useful.  So we changed to minutes, which is, most of the time, useful.
Once upon a time if you wanted to know how big a church was, you asked what its membership is.  It was pretty reliable.  While it’s true that there was never 100% attendance, that gave you a pretty good idea of, well, the size of the church.  People were good about transferring their letter when they left.  If they were members they were more likely to be active.  It made sense.
One of the trends of church-y-ism (call Webster) is that membership isn’t what it used to be.  Many people participate in a church extensively without joining.  And sometimes folks disappear quietly and without a trace—but they are still counted as a member because they never transferred their letter of membership (that one can disappear quietly and without a trace in a church is perhaps a topic for a future article).  Anyway, membership.  Meh.
So then we started tracking worship attendance.  Because even if people weren’t becoming members, they were generally attending worship, or at least most of them were.  That made good sense.  For a while.  Except now it doesn't either.  A large number of people participate regularly in our church but rarely darken the door of the sanctuary.  While that may seem a little odd to some, it makes sense if you remember that what people are seeking from church is different today from what it was only a few short years ago.  Now we’re tracking “people served in mission” or attendance in small groups.
I guess that’s well and good in some ways because it gives you an idea of how many people the church engages in a week.  Unfortunately it also hides the painful truth: worship attendance has been dropping for a while, and it continues to drop.  Behind closed doors, laity, staff members, and church officials are feverishly considering how to reverse this trend, all the while searching for other statistics that will make us feel better about how many people...aren’t in worship anymore.
It’s true of our music ministry!  We have about 250 people involved in music at Decatur First.  Many of those strongly identify with our church.  They feel loved and supported by the small group that is their choir.  They come here to worship on the high holy days.  They come here to worship when they’re on the schedule to ring or sing.  But often Sunday in and Sunday out, they are absent.  I have written before that this is an indictment on producers of worship, and I believe that.  If our worship services don’t provide people with that thing they are searching for deep in their hearts, then they are unlikely to come back again simply because there are so many other ways to spend time out there.
That said, I would also ask this: what is it that they are seeking?  Is it to be entertained?  Is it to escape?  Is it to make professional connections?  Is it to feel better?  Because all of these reasons people have had at one time or another to come to worship, and none of them are especially good reasons.
When I come to worship, I come to meet the Divine in heart and mind.  I come to meet the Divine in the faces and voices and hearts of the people around me.  I come to connect with people who are looking for something and can’t seem to find it anywhere else because I’m looking for it too.  When we start waking people to these truths, when we start creating connection with the Divine on a weekly basis, worship attendance will mean something again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

To the Moon, Alice!

The youth are dreaming.  In a good way.  Brittany told me about a conversation they had on Sunday wherein they were considering what kinds of things they would like to see in their meeting space.  Then she sent me the list.  Here are a few highlights:

· Cool access like escalator, elevator, or fireman pole.
· Large windows with seating, port hole, foamed out curve, seats 2-3.
· Large tubular swirly slide from escalator, could be soapy with hose in some occasions, shot out into ball pit but with foam squares and no rules.
· Entire wall of phone chargers.
· Cool photo area with cool background and costumes.
· Pool.
· A place with no cobwebs,  no mold, working bathrooms, toilet paper, and is functional and clean [editor’s note: this seems a reasonable request].
· Soft serve ice cream and seasonal toppings.

You get the idea.  They were told anything goes, and they went with it.  Man, did they go with it.  But having looked at the whole list, my award for biggest dream goes to Jerry Hudspeth, who said, “Everything they’ve said so far is great...but put it all on the moon under a half sphere of glass.”

While many of these ideas are surprisingly doable in the medium term (I’m praying twice a day for the twisty slide and the fireman pole), some of them are clearly less so.  Mostly because if we get a soft serve ice cream machine, someone has to clean it.  I did that at Baskin Robbins 20 years ago, and I’m not doing it again for at least 20 more years.   And everyone knows you have to have some rules when you start letting people slide down a soapy slide into a foam square pit (incidentally, does anyone else see a problem with water heading down into a pit of absorbent squares?).  And listen, every pool has rules.  Placing the entire ministry on the moon, while possibly the coolest idea I’ve ever heard, is really not doable at present, and likely not in the foreseeable future.  I hope this doesn’t mean Jerry is going to quit youth, because I really like him.

And I’m glad he said that.  Because so often we don’t dream big enough, particularly in the church.  That’s odd, because isn’t the church the place where “all things are possible?”  The missional writing team, now folded into the future story writing team, began their presentation with a dream that was so large we could not accomplish it without God’s help.  Their dream was matching money spent inside the church, dollar for dollar, with money spent outside the church.   A bold dream!  Maybe it doesn’t seem possible, but of course it is if that’s where we as a church feel God is calling us.  Even the sky is not the limit!  Let’s put the youth ministry on the moon.

Alas, there is a catch.  Actually a couple of catches.

First, we have to make sure we’re going where God is leading.  If God is leading us to lunar ministry, then nothing can stop us from getting there.  But if that’s not really where we’re supposed to be right now, I suspect it will be much tougher-going.

Second, and really more important, is that God’s commitment to making things possible doesn’t mean in any way that God will be doing it for us.  So if we’re supposed to go to the moon, then it will definitely be possible, but we’re going to have to work our tails off to get there.  When we answer that call, we have to strive, seek, find, and never yield.  We have to commit our whole selves to the cause...and not just our whole selves but the whole of our community, which in Christ is greater than the sum of the parts.

Dream on.  Dream bigger.  Use the creative Spirit to reimagine bold new directions in which God is calling you and us and others around us.  Prayerfully consider if those big dreams may be part of the future into which God is calling us.  And if they are, stop at nothing to realize them.

Jerry, if that means youth ministry needs to be on the moon, then you tell me what I need to do to help it go there.