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.