Wednesday, December 31, 2008
But as to why I am writing about this today... Kiva has a great program that allows people to buy gift certificates. So, my brother-in-law got me a Kiva gift certificate for Christmas. I applied it to my account so that I can make another loan. I logged on this morning to decide who to loan to and got this:
Thanks Kiva Lenders! You've funded EVERY loan on the site!!
To date, Kiva has enabled lenders to send $51,875,860 to the working poor around the world.
Currently, we are experiencing a traffic spike and all previously fundraising loans have been fully funded. Our team is working with Kiva's Field Partners around the globe to approve new loan applications every day.
They have run out of people to loan to. As an organization, that is what success looks like. Of course, it doesn't mean they are done. They certainly have not eradicated poverty living in the world but their mission is working. Their mission to raise awareness of the power of microfinance is having an impact. They already have more loans on the way and I am sure they are considering how to expand their reach so they don't temporarily run out in the future. I am sure it is a good but stressful day for the folks at Kiva.
Blessings for a Happy New Year!
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
As tomorrow is Christmas, I thought a Christmas posting would be in order. First of all, let me wish you a very merry Christmas. Second, let me write a bit about Christmas, specifically what I like about Christmas and the parts that leave me disappointed. Let me premise the second part by admitting that I still see Christmas from two different viewpoints. There is the view from the first 27 years of my life when I wasn’t a Christian and the view from the last 10 years I have spent as a Christian. During both phases of my life, I celebrated Christmas. What is most interesting to me now is that I see how we, as Christians, celebrate in both religious and secular ways, I think it just might be easier for me to see which is which. I just look at the stuff I added after my baptism. I want to be clear that the secular stuff is not inherently bad. In fact, some of the parts of Christmas that have nothing to do with religion are the best parts.
Here is what I like best about Christmas: First, it inspires hope and charity. Whether you attend church or not this time of celebration inspires a sense of hope that despite the realities of the world that surrounds us: climate change, economic turmoil, massive worldwide poverty and disease, etc. etc. etc. that everything might just be okay. That is imbedded in the Christian message of Christmas, that in the incarnation, God, in Jesus comes into the broken world to give us hope. But even for those who don’t know about Jesus, the Christmas lights that shimmer in the darkness, the parties that add joy to our sometimes joyless workplaces, the excitement and the anticipation speak a word of hope.
And for Christians, non-Christians and everyone in between a spirit of charity fills the air. As I was reading the news online this morning I noticed that the typical banner ads that say “Buy! Buy! Buy!” have been replaced with ads that say “Give! Give! Give!” They are there because charities and foundations know that people are more likely to give right now. Many of them don’t even know why, it I just something in the air. For Christians, it is imbedded in the message of Christmas. God, out of a sheer gift of love, sent his Son Jesus Christ to be with us, to love us, to save us. We believe that God’s love for us is a sheer gift that cannot be earned by anything we can do. We try to respond to that gift at Christmas by doing our best to imitate the outrageous generosity of God. We always come up short, but we try. At Christmas, even for those who don’t know the reason, this outpouring of giving is contagious, from people dropping money in the Salvation Army bucket, to buying an extravagant gift for a loved one, or writing a big check to a charity for the first time, this spirit of unconditional love and charity fills the air.
Here is something else I like about Christmas: Paired with the coming of the new year, it drives us to reflect and dream. This is the time of year of “year end issues” of magazines and television shows. As a people, we look back at what we are proud of and what we are ashamed of. That corporate reflection leads us to do the same in our personal lives. We look at how we spent our time and money, friends we have gained and lost, precious memories and painful heartbreaks. And then, we promise ourselves we will do better. We make resolutions and promises or just make an effort to try better. As Christians, we think about this as sanctification. We know that we are not all we should be and we believe that Jesus shows us that God loves us just the same. But we also believe that God wants more for us, that God wants us to learn and grow and become better. God wants us to live better and love better. So, at Christmas, we spend a little time trying to imitate God’s love and then commit to do better in the future.
There is much more I love about Christmas, but let me point out a couple of things that still leave me wanting. First, despite our best efforts, Christmas leaves people out. This is true inside the church and out. Despite our best efforts, and I do believe we make efforts (For instance Pastor Charles Anderson’s sermon last Sunday - I will post a link here when the podcast is available.) people believe that Christmas is about joy and so if you are hurting there is no room for you. On television, in the movies, everywhere you look, Christmas is smiling faces, big happy families and brand new Lexus sedans with giant ribbons. Those who aren’t up to smiling, don’t have family and can’t afford any presents, can feel excluded and that is really unfortunate. Christmas is about the coming of Jesus Christ who clearly came to bring good news to those who seem to be the most excluded. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and bind up the broken hearted. Yes, Christmas is about joy, but it is much deeper than that, it is about hope, even when there is no joy to be found.
The second thing about Christmas that leaves me wanting is this: it ends. This is not me being sentimental, it is something more theological. There is something very odd about celebrating the fact that the creator of the universe came, in the form of a human baby, to live with us and save us from ourselves and that we celebrate that fact with lights and trees and presents and cookies and parties and then, one week later, we take down the lights, put the tree at the curb, return the gifts we don’t want, throw away the stale cookies, clean up the mess from the parties and get on with our lives as if it was all over. While for Christians, the hope remains, the attitude often changes. For the rest of the world, the entire spirit of hope, charity and the attitude of reflection and spirit of dreaming can get put in a box and stored in the attic until next year. And that is just too bad.
Don’t get me wrong, it is good to spend some specific time each year intentionally reflecting on the incarnation, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but I am always left a little disappointed that this time doesn’t change us more, that it doesn’t change me more and that we will all have to wait another year to truly experience the gift that has been given.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: December 14, 2008
Many ministers have jettisoned their standard sermons to preach instead about the economic downturn.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
This drawing appeared in the New York Times this morning (Attached to an article, It's A Narnia Christmas by Laura Miller.) It drew my mind back to last night's teaching. I haven't included the entire teaching last night, but some of the opening comments.
What is Christmas?
“What is Christmas?” That is a question I have asked for some time. I got a lot mixed signals growing up. Mel Torme told me that Christmas is:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Which, of course left out any notion of decking the halls with boughs of holly, something that we never managed to do at my house.
Which, of course left out any notion of decking the halls with boughs of holly, something that we never managed to do at my house.
Now, I do know that Christmas has something to do with dashing through the snow, and being from
I have dreamed of a white Christmas but haven’t had that dream come true much in
I love all of these images, because they remind me of a wonderful time of year. They represent family and love and the magic of this time of the year and I embrace them. But, one of the things I try to do in Advent is clarify. I try to clarify what things are good in a sentimental way and what things are clearly about Jesus Christ. They are both good. We can embrace the secular and the sentimental. We can embrace things that are about family and even things that are just about winter itself. But, it is good to reflect on what is what and which is which that we might remember to worship that which is truly Christmas, our savior Jesus Christ.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I just finished Randy Frazee’s book The
I found myself getting depressed while reading this book. This was by no means a reflection on the author’s work. What was bugging me was this: when it comes to small groups, I have read more books than I can count. There are always great ideas, new insights and stories of success. However, when I talk to my colleagues, we all suffer from the same trouble of trying to create true, organic community within the church. Occasionally, I just feel like I am feeding more data into my brain and going nowhere. However, with Randy Frazee’s approach, I found a bit of hope. I found hope in the fact that before offering more approaches, he starts with the problems. The entire book is based around three problems that get in the way of true biblical community: the problem of individualism, the problem of isolation and the problem of consumerism. For each of these problems he addresses the issue with, not just a small group plan, but a pathway to getting at the root of the problem. For the issue of individualism, the solution lies in common purpose. This may be my favorite part, Frazee points out that we often try to jump into small groups in order to nurture and sustain ourselves while we don’t even agree on what it is we believe. It is awfully difficult to hold each other up and hold each other accountable when we don’t agree on even the basic tenants of our faith. For the problem of isolationism, the author really digs deep and suggests we really reconsider where we live and how we live in community. He suggests that true biblical community happens, not at church, but in our community, in our neighborhoods (imagine that!) For the problem of consumerism, the path leads us to rethink our possessions and our interdependence and how our relationship to both can foster or prevent true community.
I really liked this book not because it gave me a whole lot of concrete steps regarding small groups but that it helped me to better understand the goals and pitfalls of trying to foster true community. I would be really interested to know how the author’s thinking has grown or changed in his time down the street at Oak Hills. So, Randy if you read your reviews, give me a call or yell real loud, we aren’t too far away.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
In my study and practice of Christian discipleship, one issue has never really crossed my mind until recently. There is something to be said about the context in which one learns and grows as a disciple. I believe that there must be a certain sense of trust in the system.
If we think about the word “disciple” itself, from the Greek methetes, we can see we are talking about a student or apprentice. For one to truly gain from being a student or apprentice, one must have a certain amount of trust in the teacher. If one were training to become a plumber and entered into an apprentice relationship with the plumber, but didn’t trust the plumber, there would be something lacking in the process. If it were me and I were the student, I could find myself second guessing the plumber. “Is he teaching me correctly? Does he know what he is doing? Is he trying to mislead me?”
In some ways this is easy for us. The one we are following is Jesus Christ and as Christians we can put our full trust in Jesus Christ. However, and here is the sticky part, the Holy Spirit calls and equips others to be the hands and feet of Jesus in all aspect of the church including in helping people to learn and grow in Jesus’ image. This includes preachers, teachers and leaders. While we may put our trust in Jesus Christ, if we do not trust the ones working for Jesus we may find ourselves in the place of my imaginary plumber’s apprentice.
This is not as easy as it sounds. While, through faith, we put all our trust in God through Jesus Christ, we know better than to blindly trust human beings. Nearly all of us have heard of people being led astray and some of us have been led astray ourselves. However, in the journey of discipleship – of looking to Jesus that we might look like Jesus – at some point we have to make a choice. At some point, we have to prayerfully evaluate those in the faith community around us and decide if we will walk with them or even allow them to lead us in our faith journeys. We can always reevaluate but there is one thing that we clearly can’t do: we can’t decide to follow or even walk with someone in a spirit of distrust.
In some ways, the commitment to Christian discipleship is a lot like marriage. In marriage, we have to establish some level of trust. We have to believe that our spouse really means the vows that were said in the ceremony. We have to believe that she won’t harm us, that he won’t betray us, that she will work to protect us. Of course, if that trust is violated we are devastated; but at the same time, we cannot live in the spirit of distrust assuming that our spouse will intentionally wrong us. I have seen relationships where that was the case and they did not last very long.
Any pastor who has moved to a new church and any church that has received a new pastor knows that there is always a time of testing and transition. Conflict is likely to arise over seemingly simple things: the new pastor wants the communion table in a new place, wants to change the order of worship or has a different style of preaching. Change always creates stress because it creates uncertainty which can lead to fear. Often this period of uncertainty is quickly resolved because the members of the church decide to trust their new pastor. This does not mean that they will never question what the pastor is doing, but they are less likely to question the integrity of the pastor.
Let me try one of my previous examples. I trust my wife. I trust that when she says she loves me that she means it. Because of this, if it were my birthday and there were no cake, no card, no present, I would assume either a) she has a surprise in store or b) she got so busy taking care of our child that she forgot. I would not assume that she was purposely ignoring my birthday to hurt my feelings.
It works the same way with our church leaders. At some point we have to decide if we trust that they: love Jesus, love the church and want to do everything they can to connect people with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. We might still disagree with what they do or how they do it but we assume that they are doing it for the right reasons. We can disagree but there is one thing that we clearly can’t do: we can’t decide to follow or even walk with someone in a spirit of distrust.
Often I don’t see that. In an effort to make disciples of Jesus Christ, I make so many decisions every day that I can’t even count. I realize that all of these decisions are not perfect and sometimes they are totally wrong. But I believe they always represent my best efforts to use my gifts to spread the love of Jesus Christ. But, too often, people respond out of a lack of trust concluding that my action or inaction represents something devious or even unchristian.
As a clergy person, I am not off the hook here. I have to make that same commitment every day with the Christians that surround me. I have to believe that the people around me, no matter what their behavior, are trying to grow in the image and likeness of Christ.
This comes up for me now in my thinking about discipleship because if that trust is not there at some level we will be stranded on our journeys unable to embrace the gift of community that Jesus gave us with his gift of the church because we are too busy protecting ourselves that we cannot be open to the direction of others.
One of the worst theologians of our time, Billy Joel says it well in his song A Matter of Trust:
I've lived long enough to have learned
The closer you get to the fire the more you get burned
Joel is talking about a different kind of love but we are talking about the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, a love that we are called to share with each other. That kind of love and that kind of trust will burn us sometimes, but if we don’t let go we will put a giant stumbling block in the path that leads us to recreation in God’s image. Jesus surely knew that this kind of love had consequences but he also knew that the power and love of God was way greater than any human consequences.
May God bless you on your journey of discipleship.
Monday, December 8, 2008
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Mark 13:24-37 “What Are We Waiting For?”
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
I love a little controversy. It gets people talking. The Shack is raising a little controversy around the church. Someone quoted me an unfavorable review the other day, so I thought I would post a number of reviews on the weblog so those who have not read the book can make an informed decision about reading it.
WESLEYAN WISDOM: 'The Shack'—A great take on Wesleyan theology! - United Methodist Reporter's Donald W. Haynes is critical of some aspects of the book but applauds much of its theology especially in the area of grace.
'Shack' opens doors, but critics call book 'scripturally incorrect' - Cathy Lynn Grossman from USA Today attempts a balanced piece with quotes from critics and fans of the book.
Fiction for the Faith-Starved - Cindy Crosby at Christianity Today takes a look. Christianity Today is a mainline evangelical magazine. They tend to be moderately conservative in their views and they have some positive things to say about the book.
Reading in Good Faith - Derek R. Keefe Christianity Today's assistant editor gives some guidance on how to approach the book.
Hank Speaks Out On The Shack - It would be unfair to leave out the one that was quoted to me. Hank Hanegraaff is "The Bible Answer Man" and clearly would rather you not read the book.
If you have read the book and have thoughts and comments, feel free to post a comment. If you have not read it, I still recommend it. Frankly, I think it corrects more incorrect theology than it offers. If you have not read it and you are concerned about my recommendation, please come and speak to me.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
I didn't grow up as a practicing Christian but I am pretty sure being from Buffalo prepared me. Growing up in the Buffalo area requires an awful lot of hope. Living in a thriving city like San Antonio makes being hopeful pretty easy. Home values go up, jobs come to town, the sun shines and the Spurs win. Buffalo, on the other hand, still reels from the painful death of its major industrial base, Bethlehem Steel. The scar of that great loss still marks the shore of Lake Erie and still haunts families who never recovered emotionally or financially. It continues to trickle down economically making every bit of growth hard earned. It continues to trickle down emotionally laying a dim fog of despair on the hearts of so many. And no matter how long you live in it or love it, the long winters of cold and dark can really drain the hope from your soul. And most people who have lived in Buffalo long enough can tell you that the words "wide right" actually produce a physical reaction sort of like nausea but more painful. Many Buffalonians can remember where they sat in January of 91, 92, 93 and 94 as their hopes of Superbowl victory were dashed once again.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
I post a little less on the weblog than I used to because of some of the other new ways I have found to communicate my thoughts and activities. I used to often post really short updates about where I was or where I was going. Twitter is now my venue for that random sort of stuff. If you don’t follow twitter, you can still see those by scrolling down a bit on the blog and looking at my twitter updates. (And if you still don’t “get” twitter, The U’s Matt Redman has a great article about it here: On Social Networking, by Matt Redman) I also used to post a lot more links to articles and other websites. Those are now a lot easier to post on my facebook account and actually tend to inspire more comments and feedback there. (For more information on facebook, you can read this article from Wikipedia.)
I want to admit that this is all still a grand experiment for me. There is part of me that still thinks this might all be a bad idea. In response to a comment on an earlier post about twitter on this blog, I referenced Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart, where, in his section on silence, he quotes Chuang Tzu, "The purpose of a fish trap is to catch a fish and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of rabbit trap is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to." [From Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tsu (New York: New Directions, 1965), p. 154]
Our modern communications and relationships have become more and more fractured. We used to only communicate face to face, then by letters, then by telegram, then by phone, then by email and cell phone and text message and instant message. Throughout the whole evolution the level of interactivity has been constantly changing. Face to face is quite interactive, letters and telegram are but without the instant gratification (though, in case you missed it,
The rate at which we add means of communication seems to be accelerating but there is always the risk that we are communicating less. But in this evolving and accelerating communication universe is that what is happening? Is all this communication causing us to communicate less? And how does this all relate to our call to Christian community? In our increasingly fractured society where the idea of community and family has so been so drastically changed as we have moved from small towns and inner cities to suburbs and gated communities and from living in the same town as a our parents and siblings to living in different states and countries are all these new means of communication part of the solution or part of the problem? We will see.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
It sort of feels like I somehow scratched, clawed and struggled my way through the wilderness with just my wits- no map, no compass, trees so thick I couldn’t see the sun or stars, getting lost over and over and then finally came out of the woods and realized there were forest rangers with maps, global positioning satellite receivers, compasses, snacks and water standing every 10 feet.
The forest rangers are people, events, situations and other things that, with some perspective appeared to be clearly pointing me in the right direction. At the time, I didn’t see them at all or choose to ignore them.
It is even more amazing that God has allowed me to tuck these things into the back of my brain and they tend to come tumbling out when I am trying to explain something in a sermon or while teaching. They are wonderful little gifts of remembrance.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Friday, October 31, 2008
Church of the Resurrection's Adam Hamilton has another great addition to the conversation you can read here:
"Christian” E-Mail About the Candidates? at Seeing Gray: Faith, Morality, and Politics in a Black and White World
Your comments are welcome on any of the posts. Are you receiving these emails? Do they affect you differently if they are about your candidate or the other candidate? Do you forward? Do you respond? Do you ignore? Let me know.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
Part of developing an effective system of making disciples is knowing what a disciple is. More specifically, the question is, “what are the marks of a fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ?”
This passage from 1 John adds a useful element to the discussion. The journey of discipleship is a journey of sanctification: of being made perfect in love. Let’s say for a moment that a disciple is one who is growing in perfection in love. I do not think it is fair or useful to say that a disciple is one who is already perfect in love. Rather, a mark of a true disciple is that one is committed to growing in love. The scripture shows us that there is a clear relationship between love and fear as we read, “whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
So, is it fair to day that a disciple is one who is experiencing a decrease in fear and an increase in love? Is it possible for one to evaluate for oneself if this is happening?
I think we need to be realistic about where we are in our own walks. I am not close to a place of living with no fear. I don’t know that I have ever met anyone completely free of fear. However, I have met people who refuse to be ruled by fear who live their lives and make decisions based more on love than on fear. I have also met people who I have witnessed moving along the continuum from fear-based living to love-based living.
Perhaps the question will take us back to the martyrs. I would be surprised if those who gave their lives in defense of their faith did so without a moment of fear. However, love won the day.
This might be an important question right now. On the eve of an election, in the midst of an economic downturn, in an age where many are looking over their shoulders for terrorists, how are we acting or reacting as disciples? Does our reaction look any different from those who don’t profess to follow Jesus?
Let me know your thoughts.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
One other thing I want to point out is a clear bias in the Barna’s research. I am not using the word bias pejoratively. This is not hidden bias, it is just how Barna bases his research. When evaluating whether or not people are Christian, whether they are living as Christians or have a Christian worldview, Barna and his team use a fairly arbitrary list of factors that I do not always agree with. Barna is pretty clear in his mind what makes a Christian a Christian and what makes a disciple a disciple and I respect that. We should all be a little more clear. However his dedication to those beliefs makes his research something different from unbiased numerical data. For on this, read Adam Hamilton’s thoughts on a book by two of Barna’s Associates, unChristian, by Kinnaman and Lyons. (http://adamhamilton.cor.org/2008/06/26/do-you-have-a-biblical-worldview/) Let me just summarize with this: if you and I disagree on what exactly makes a Christian, we will disagree on who is a Christian and who is a disciple and we will have trouble agreeing on how to measure the effectiveness of systems that make disciples.
I don’t want to be too hard on this text. There is a lot of good stuff to be gleaned if you are passionate about making disciples. Because this book is well researched and involves input from a number of churches, there is a lot of useful insights. I love the list of things that did not work, approaches that did not achieve results. I won’t list them all (if you are into this stuff, you will have to read the book) but here are a couple of gems: Trying to produce disciples without having a clear definition of discipleship didn’t work. Seems like a no brainer but there is where Barna’s clarity of conviction that sometimes throws his research off shows its power. I think a lot of churches can’t agree on what a disciple is. So, how do you go about helping someone become one? Here is something else that didn’t work: doing discipleship activities without a long-term strategy that is the foundation for decision making and resource allocation. In other words, in Barna’s words, “discipleship is a process not a program.” I have believed from the beginning of my research that if you try to tack discipleship on as a program offering, you fail. Here at University, how we make disciples affects every decision we make. I am working on budgeting right now and every single dollar needs to be accounted for in terms of the phases of growth in discipleship. This might be the most important point of the whole book and a point that it makes a number of times in a number of ways.
A number of people ask me for help in creating a discipleship system at their church. The question I am starting to offer back is, “does your church want to have a discipleship system” or “does your church want to become a discipleship system?” That is the place I believe we need to start. If we don’t see the main role of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ and if you do not see that as meaning something more than getting them to join, then plans and programs won’t work. However, I believe that if we start with the clear understanding of what a disciple is and a passionate drive to be about that, the rest can fall into place.
Thanks to George Barna for adding to the discussion.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
You can read a summary of the report here:
“Do five simple things a day to stay sane, say scientists” at TimesOnline
Or the entire report here:
The Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing
But, as way of summary, here are the five things:
Connect - Developing relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors will enrich your life and bring you support
Be active - Sports, hobbies such as gardening or dancing, or just a daily stroll will make you feel good and maintain mobility and fitness
Be curious - Noting the beauty of everyday moments as well as the unusual and reflecting on them helps you to appreciate what matters to you
Learn - Fixing a bike, learning an instrument, cooking – the challenge and satisfaction brings fun and confidence
Give - Helping friends and strangers links your happiness to a wider community and is very rewarding
This was a secular study, but notice that each one of these things is a core piece of the life of an active Christian lived out in the church.
Connect – Developing relationships with fellow journeyers on the path of discipleship for support and accountability. At University we are intentional about this from the beginning. All new members take part in uconnect 101, where we connect to the church and one another.
Be active – Be present in the life of the church in worship, fellowship, study and mission. While some Christians choose to only participate in Sunday worship, the calling is to be actively involved in the life and ministry if the church (see below.)
Be curious – Psalm 8: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
Part of the role of worship is to simply take in the glory of the Lord. When we connect to this, every moment of our lives can be worshipful as we take in the wonder of creation in everything we see and do.
Learn – Part of the journey of discipleship is to learn. We learn not just for information, but for transformation as we study scripture and hope to better understand it meaning in our lives. At University, the Pathway to Discipleship is designed to begin a lifelong journey of learning and transformation.
Give – We offer our prayer presence, gifts and service in response to God to be a part of God’s work in the world. As United Methodists, we give connectionally, knowing that our gifts are at work all around the globe.
So, if you want to stay mentally fit, engage in the life that God has created for us as a community of believers. Your brain will thank you.
Monday, October 20, 2008
I just wanted to point out an article in this morning's New York Times that talks about how words can change meaning even while we are not watching. It turns out the word subprime used to be a good thing. Now, not so much. Check out the article here:
By SIMON WINCHESTER
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Live from REVEAL: Bill Hybels on Self-Centered Christians
At University, we talk about the journey of discipleship in three phases: No to New, New to True and True to Trained. These are paired with what goes on in these phases: A Jesus Meeting, Hearing the Jesus Message, and Discovering One's Jesus Mission. If you are following University this is review and if you have followed the work of REVEAL, the following is review, but look how the phases line up. REVEAL lays out groups in four levels: Those Exploring Christ (the seekers), Growing in Christ (beginning believers), Close to Christ, and Christ-Centered.
So this is nothing new. But, what is revealing is what Hybels considers the most difficult jump in stages: from Close to Christ to Christ-Centered. It is the jump from self-centered to completely Christ-centered. That is a pretty important point. It really gets at the root of the REVEAL findings that just participating does not make one a disciple.
Do this mental exercise: try to identify in your congregation two long-attending people who are both active, useful and knowledgeable. Think of one that would fit that definition of Christ-centered and one that you would consider self-centered. They are likely both people who have served on committees and been involved in many important things in the life of the church, but they are radically different people. Got them in your head? As a pastor, I can easily think of the two and I honestly like and appreciate both, but they are radically different. Here is the question: How did the Christ-centered person make the jump? If you know, you may hold a very important pieces of the pathway to discipleship. Let me know what you think.
Your comments are always welcome.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Just a couple of weeks ago we added a new piece. After the service a few people gather in the room to discuss the scripture and the teaching. This is a really unique opportunity to discuss questions about the text or teaching and to share insights and experiences. So far, it really affects my preparation and teaching knowing that what I am sharing is not one-way but rather I will also have a chance to share dialogue on the group. Over the last couple weeks, there have been about ten people for the group. I hope more people will take advantage of this opportunity.
If you live in San Antonio and haven't checked it out yet, I hope you will. I will be on vacation next week and Rev. Leslie Tomlinson will be leading as we continue our journey through Mark's Gospel.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
I get nervous when too many people recommend the same book especially if it is a book that is about God, religion or spirituality. I get nervous because just because a book is popular, doesn’t mean it is good. Often large numbers of people are drawn to things that they want to hear. Just like fad diets that offer change without the discipline or sacrifice, fad spirituality often offers a shallow alternative to real spirituality.
What I find most interesting about The Shack is that it has been criticized by some as being that sort of fad spirituality. Reviewers have claimed it represents bad theology, false doctrine and even heresy. I just have to say that I don’t find that to be true. Some defenders of the book have responded by saying that it is only meant as a work of fiction, but to me it is something more. The Shack is an allegory. An allegory is an extended metaphor where the characters or objects reflect a deeper meaning outside of the narrative itself. In fact, noted author Eugene Peterson reflects this sense of allegory in his quote that is on the cover of paperback edition by comparing this book to another allegorical work when he writes, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” (I also wonder if it is any coincidence that the author happens to mention, seemingly in passing, another allegorical work on page 19 of the paperback edition when he writes, “Glancing at himself in the mirror, he thought he looked a little like some rough sailor out of Moby Dick.” The point of the book is not to present a doctrinal or theological view of who God is and how God acts but to paint a picture that points beyond itself that may allow us to better understand and comprehend our God who is never fully understandable or comprehendible.
All that said, The Shack is an astonishingly good book. I was hooked from the outset by the author’s ability to paint pictures of truth as he described the joy that can come from storms that interrupt our routine and allow all affected to take a collective sigh at the forced reprieve from the pressures of life.
I don’t want to comment too much on the storyline since I want to leave it be experienced. And I do recommend experiencing it. Depending on your theological worldview, there are parts that may make you nervous and there are parts that may be true epiphanies. The book may help you consider your own image of God and your own theology of grace, redemption and suffering. Whether you agree with the picture the author paints or not, it is a good thing if it helps you to look beyond the story to increase the depth of your own understanding and relationship with God.
The Shack and other titles read and recommended by our clergy team are available at The Word Store on the south campus of The U.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Google, in their continuing effort to make the web a better place (and take over the world) has been adding new features to their web-based email service, Gmail. My new favorite feature is called "Mail Goggles." You can read about the feature here: Google tool to keep emails sober. The tool is intended to help you avoid any late night, regrettable emails by asking you to solve five math problems before it will send your mail. You can adjust the filter to kick in at days and times you are more likely to send and unfortunate email to your boss, girlfriend or other recipient.
I am taking my chances and leaving the filter off. However, I have asked Google to work on one more feature. There are a few people in my life that I would like to require to solve a few math problems before they can email me. I will let you know when it is available.
I am hesitant to recommend a book to everyone. I realize that people are in innumerably different places in their lives and spiritual journeys and different things might be more appropriate at different times. But I think I can offer Simply Christian to everyone. This book is an excellent read for people who are looking at Christianity for the first time. It is an incredible intermediate text for people who are looking to add a depth of understanding to their faith. It is also an indispensible tool for mature Christians who are always in need of review, focus and the ability to better articulate their faith to others. (In University’s Vision Map, this book would be useful for people in all three stages: meeting, message and mission.) It seems that these multiple audiences are what Wright had in mind. His aim, he writes, “has been to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside.” (from the introduction, page v.)
Simply Christian, while a fairly comprehensive overview of the faith, is not just another text on the tenants of Christianity. Wright tackles the subject through the lens of three possible understandings of the intersection of heaven and earth, with a clear indication of which he understands as true and helpful. I love this approach as I see our lack of clarity in how we interact with God as undermining our overall theology and therefore negatively affecting how we live as Christians.
Enjoy the book. If you have read it or if you read, I hope you will offer your comments.
Simply Christian and other titles read and recommended by our clergy team are available at The Word Store on the south campus of The U.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Back to reading!
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
So I was excited when my assistant left me this article from the San Antonio Express News on how a non-denominational new church start is using twitter as a part of their worship service. You can read the article here:
"Blest be the tweets that bind" - San Antonio Express News
The thing that they are doing that I find really innovative is allowing people to send tweets during worship and even during the sermon, commenting on what they are experiencing at the moment and making worship truly interactive. (If you still don't know what a tweet is, go back and read the article or my post on the subject.)
While I am not quite ready to have an interactive discussion of my sermon occurring on the screen behind me, this Wednesday night, I will be taking a shot a little more interaction. After our Wednesday evening worship service, I will be leading a discussion group on the teaching for the night. The worship bulletins include discussion questions and starting at 7, we will have a chance to ask questions and discuss the scripture. I am really excited about the premise and I hope we can get some folks involved.
And if you want some more regular, random interaction, you can still follow me on twitter at http://twitter.com/pastorwill. You can also follow the church at http://twitter.com/TheU
Thursday, September 25, 2008
With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor,
but through knowledge the righteous escape.
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
You may notice that the blog rarely contains anything of a political nature. When it does contain something seemingly political, it usually contains a disclaimer pointing out that I have posted it for some other, non-political reason.
My reason for avoiding politics has nothing to do with an issue of separation of church and state. It has to do with my calling to speak prophetically. If I am understood in away way to be partisan, I lose my voice to speak theologically to both sides. Research shows that if I choose a side, half the people will stop listening to me no matter what I say. (See my post of my old weblog: Reinforcing our Prejudices: http://willatgrace.blogspot.com/2008/04/reinforcing-our-prejudices.html)
So, you won’t likely read on the blog about policy opinions or evaluations of candidates. However, you may hear me speak about process. I believe one of the roles of an ordained elder, ordained to Word, Sacrament and Order is to point out and hold people accountable for behavior that is counter to the word and interferes with the sacramental life and order of the church.
As we get closer to the presidential election, the internet rumor mill is churning at a feverish pace. Ignoring for a moment the distortions of fact found in television advertisements, the forwarded email phenomenon is completely out of control. While political advertisements tend to bend and stretch the truth to try and score points with potential voters, forwarded emails often start with pure lies invented to discredit a person whose views do not align with the creative inventor of the lie.
Some examples, you may have heard (with one for each major presidential and vice-presidential candidate to be fair):
-Barak Obama is a radical Muslim who was sworn into the Senate on the Quran – I can’t believe this one is still alive.
-John McCain declared during a 60 Minutes interview that he was a war criminal – Taken out of context in his discussions of his treatment as a P.O.W.
-Joe Biden plans to drop out of the election after the VP debate so Hillary Clinton can fill his spot – Just made up.
-There is a photo of Sarah Palin standing poolside in an American flag bikini holding and assault rifle – Well, there is such a photo, clearly manipulated in Photoshop to place Gov. Palin’s head on someone else’s body.
I guess the real problem isn’t that these rumors exist, but rather that people continue to pass them along as fact. As Christians, whether we like it or not, we are called to live at a little higher level of discourse. Let me localize the thought a bit. If you heard that your neighbor, someone you have known for a long time, was doing something unseemly, say dealing drugs, what would you do? Turn him in? Tell all your other neighbors? Or, talk to your neighbor.
Let’s start with the reason you would care at all. If you neighbor was, in fact, dealing drugs, this would be worthy of a response. Your neighbor may not have wronged you directly but what they were doing would be potentially be damaging to you, others neighborhood, and possibly even you.
Let’s look at how scripture advises us to handle such conflict, from Matthew 18:15-17:
15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
So, you would go to your neighbor in private and check it out. Maybe it is not true. Maybe you can show him the error of his ways. If not, you take some other neighbors and have the same talk. Now, if your neighbor is not a member of the church telling your congregation may not help, but the point remains the same. Perhaps at this point, it would be alright to warn other neighbors about the problem.
I think people react to rumors about politicians out of well placed intention. I will pick on Sarah Palin’s rumor because it is the most egregious. If she was the sort of person who hung out at the pool in a bikini with an assault rifle, that might affect my impression of her overall judgment. I might feel wronged if she were the Vice President of our country. Following this biblical model, I can’t exactly go to her in private. However, before I broadcast the rumor, I think I have the responsibility to try my best to see if it is true.
There are lots of places to check the facts. If something is true and you believe it is important for your friends and family to know about, than by all means you should share the information. If it is not true, I believe you have a responsibility as a Christian, if not to correct the misinformation, to at least not continue to spread the falsehood.
When something comes into your inbox or a friend or coworker shares a fact about a candidate or any other human being for that matter, before you share it with others as truth, take the time to visit one of the these non-partisan websites:
www.snopes.com – an urban legend clearing house
www.factcheck.org – a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It is also non-partisan as evidence in the fact that both major party campaigns have quoted their findings.
Monday, September 22, 2008
For anyone who was with me for the journey of my own ordination, you know that I was not always totally fond of the covenant connection process. All in all I think the idea is sound, but I wasn't always very happy how it played out. So, when asked, I decided it didn't do much good to complain and it might be better to be part of making the process better. So here I go. I am actually excited to be around another group of pastors who are just getting started. I pray that I might offer some help in guidance that will equip them to be a blessing to God and Christ's Holy Church.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
It is said that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. I believe that is true, but my own internal weather station seems to be just as powerful in taking me to other times and places. As one who spent most of my life in a different climate, I am not used to the Texas seasons or seeming lack of. In comparison to New York and Pennsylvania, Texas weather is pretty much always the same. Back home I could suffer through a streak of 100+ days in the summer and face a thermometer that spent a week below the zero mark in the winter. The seasons were radical changes that caused people to do things differently. As a kid, when that first crisp night of fall rolled in, it was time to return to school; when that first sharp icy wind blew through, it was time to put the bikes in the basement and take the sleds out of the shed; when that warm breeze blew across the snow banks, the birds reappeared, and the smell of mud filled the air it was time to bring the bikes back out and get outside; and when the heat made us restless in the classroom and all the windows were open and the fans were on, freedom returned with the months of summer.
So, I was sent into a mini tailspin this week when we hit a low of 59 and saw some cloudy skies in San Antonio. The clouds made it get dark a little earlier and suddenly, for my body it was fall, time to change gears, time to head inside, time to get ready for winter, time to gather firewood and get the clothes out of the basement. I called my Dad in New York who was sitting by a fire he has built in the fire place. But here it is supposed to be 85 tomorrow which means I should get back to work.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
I am preaching next Sunday so I get the use all of the material that has come in for the week. Six people submitted material, about two to five pages each. I must say two things: First, I am impressed at the quality of material. Charles is pretty specific in his instructions asking, not for forwarded emails and Google searches, but personal experience. People really listen. Most of the material is truly personal reaction to the text and personal narrative and examples that resonate with the scripture. Second, in addition to being impressed, I am a little overwhelmed. This is a completely different way to work on the sermon and I am not totally sure my brain can handle it. After reading and internalizing all this material I am off kilter in my typical means of sermon writing.
Typically, I read a text and take is apart mechanically, looking for anything in language or Biblical context that speaks to me. Then, I meditate on it a bit, searching for some way to hear and then looking for some way to articulate what I hear in the passage to those I will share it with. All of a sudden, I have a bunch of other voices. I have different ways of hearing, different ways of understanding, different ways of sharing. And now they are all in my head. And I am not sure I can hear. Or maybe I need to listen differently.
I still have week to prepare. Let's see what the Spirit does with my muddled brain.
Friday, September 12, 2008
What did I learn? Did I learn that I am too dependant upon the interconnected world of the internet and need to spend more time offline and connected to paper and people? No, in fact, I think I am going to upgrade my wireless router so I can work outside.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
All of a sudden, I find myself back in a rhythm, but with a fairly significant change. I now preach every week on Wednesday. I wouldn't think it would matter, but it is actually relevant that I preach on Wednesday evening, which technically means that I have Wednesday to prepare.
There is also a change in the rhythm because my preaching/teaching style has changed fairly significantly due to the nature of the service. As I wrote about in my last post, the main point of this service is a little different with focus on the question from our vision map, "What is the news about Jesus and what do I do about it?" So far, and I only have one week under my belt and one more on paper, the teachings are less existential and more educational. This may have a little to do with one more thing that changes the rhythm, the fact that the service is only thirty minutes long. It is my hope that connecting the teaching of the sermon with the questions of living scripture day to day will eventually happen in the post worship discussion. For the next four weeks, I am leading a small group on "University for Life" but after that, the service will be followed by small group breakouts to discuss some life questions based on the sermon. The questions for these breakouts are already being printed in the worship bulletins, so I can get in that rhythm.
I hope you will join me Wednesdays at 6:15 as I try and get my rhythm back. Your thoughts and comments on the service are always welcome!
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
So, as I set out to restart a service of worship on Wednesdays, I started from the beginning. I began knowing full well that the day and time itself has its own unique challenges. Wednesday evening has certainly lost its place as a time for worship and Bible study amongst mainline protestants. But, then again, more and more, so has Sunday. Very few Christians would consider worshipping primarily on Wednesday and very few feel the need or desire to worship more than once a week. That is a challenge. However, in a church of close to 6000 members in a rapidly growing area, there may still be enough need and demand to make the service work.
Given the challenges, I worked with our team of coaching pastors to figure out what need worship at that time and place might fill. In trying to understand the worship habits of our members and the clear desire to worship on Sunday, we began to get a feel for the service. We realized that this service would not likely be, for many, an alternative to Sunday morning, but an addition to Sunday morning. That raised the question, who needs an addition to Sunday morning? While we came to realize that people might be drawn to Wednesday worship for a number of reasons, those who may most need it are those for whom Sunday morning is currently their only means of connection to the message of Jesus. An overwhelming number of people, be they new to Christianity, returning or even those who have been connected for a long time have no means of growing in discipleship other than Sunday morning. We asked the question, could Wednesday evening be a means for drawing them deeper into the community and deeper into the gospel? That is where we started.
We have renamed the service ugrow and focused it on people in the message phase of our discipleship model, in other words, people asking the question, "What is the news about Jesus and what do I do about it?" The service will be primarily prayer and teaching. We will begin this week with a look at the Gospel of Mark. I recommended moving the service to the loft, a space that better reflects the size of the service and a room better suited to a teaching based service. For the first five weeks, the service will be followed by a discussion of the "University for Life" church-wide study. After that, we will have informal small group discussion based on the teaching for the night.
Whether or not this sounds like something you need, I hope you come. (If you are a reader who lives in San Antonio.) Your presences will support this worship ministry and, whatever the form, we could all use some more time gathered together to worship our creator.
See you tonight at 6:15.