Thursday, December 21, 2006

Finding a balance

I just returned from driving my fiancee's car across the country, taking it up from Atlanta back to Minnesota. As I was riding I noticed the real tension involved in such a trip. On the one hand both me and my co-pilot/brother needed to get back to Minnesota by Wednesday. (We left on Monday) On the other hand there were several opportunities that I missed along the way. I drove right past Beloit, where I went to college without getting a chance to stop in and walk the grounds and visit my old professors. Our stops were few and quick, never pausing to really appreciate everything we were passing through. (Granted a lot of it was the barren fields of Illinois, but still) Now, my brother and I did make serveral stops, visiting my future grandmother-in-law, as well as stopping at her parents for the night and a friend of mine for the night. Both of these stops were great and made the trip feel less rushed. I guess what really struck me was trying to figure out balance between haste and noticing life. It seems like something we all have to deal with in different ways. When do we become so fixed on a goal that we forget the people along the way? At the other end of it is the times where we get so fixed on the people and stopping for each of them we never achieve our goal. I would like to think I had a decent balance given the circumstances, on my trip, but I was just struck by how much haste dictated my actions. Too often it seems we get caught in a bind of what has to happen and cannot take the time for the full process that should happen. Maybe being aware of the tension is enough, but it seems like there is a lot we need to be thinking about and trying to balance as we hurtle through life and stop and smell the flowers.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Surrender in Worship

One of the big questions for pastors is when we find time to worship for ourselves. I know that when I was in seminary I was participating in up to six services a week, but usually at all but one of them I was either taking part in leading the service or I was responsible for working the sound board. Unfortunately it is very easy to get caught up in the "work" that needs to be done that it is impossible to truly worship. I want to exmaine whether it is really possible for a pastor to worship when they are the leader of the service.

First I will look at what it means to worship. To me the heart of the matter lies in surrender in worship. Worship to me is about surrendering one's self to God. True worship happens when we let go of who we are, what we want, and instead focus entirely on God. When we can get rid of the distractions of our own self-interest I think we can enter into a true spirit of worship.

This can sound simple enough, but I think it can seem that the duties of a pastor run counter to this. A leader in worship is expected to be faciliating worship for others. If worship is about getting rid of the distractions, than clearly the role of the worship leader is about making the service as smooth as possible, so that no one is jarred from their experience by hitches in the flow.

I know that when I am preaching I am guilty of thinking ahead to what I am going to say later when the opening songs are being sung. It is easy to be worrying about, focusing on, providing last minute touches to the next part of the service rather than losing myself in the moment. The question I have is whether this is avoidable. Certainly, if I were "more" prepared for my sermon, or "more" confident about it, then I pressumably I would not be as worried about it during the rest of the worship service. I say "more" because while certainly could be more prepared, I use the quotes to denote I am not sure that the more needed to not stress about the sermon is actually obtainable, since no matter how often we say it, you cannot always just try harder to get the results you seek.

I want to be able to worship with my congregation. I want to be able to get to that point of surrender. The typical belief, and one that I subscribe to, is that it is not technical perfection, but the soul, the spirit, that makes art beautiful. I think the same is true in worship. It is not whether things are perfect, but whether the heart truly is in the love expressed to God. "I love you" is meaningless as a collection of words, if it does represent the feelings of the heart. I think a pastor cannot forget this fact. What makes truly powerful is if the surrender is obvious in the musicians, the pastor, in the models the congregation looks to. I do not know that a pastor can be complete emersed in worship, the distractions, the demands are clearly present that prohibt some level of surrender. I think that if pastors can reach that level of surrender then we are better leaders of worship than if we have everything technical perfect, and all our transitions are seemless and our prayers perfect. It may be hardest for us, but I think the need is there for pastors to join in true worship with their congregations, to surrender in worship to God.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas?

I will be the first to admit that I am rather picky when it comes to Christmas. I expect, even demand, there to be snow on the ground come Christmas. Not even that, I expect a white Advent. The temperature today is just around freezing, there is fog in the air and enough rain to dampen anyone's windshield or spirit. This is not the sort of weather that makes me think about buying Christmas presents or getting in the mood to celebrate the brith of Christ. I know that there really is no connection between the birth of Jesus and snow, but in my mind there is. I mention this because I think there is a strong connection to the church. Too often I think there is negative thinking around mainline churches. Time and time again as I read books, attacks are made on the mainline churches and their failures and declines over the last thirty years. I do not want to dispute the factual nature of these claims, but I want to argue their continued negative effects. It is one thing to bring attention to the issue, but I doubt many churches are not aware of, and uncomfortable about their decline. For those few that this is the case, these comments might be useful in arousing them from their blissful slumber. For the most part congregations, and pastors in particular are aware of the need for change. I think what is needed is an atmosphere of hope. When it is gloomy outside and looks like spring, or autumn, I do think of winter and Christmas. We in the church need to remeber that with God there is always hope. We need to remember that there is always a reason to be hopefully and to generate this hope around us. I do think we should be unaware, or niave about the way things are, but we do need to cultivate a hope, a sense that things will in prove, that God is still speaking, still acting, still working with and through our churches. Are the glory days of the 50s and 60s gone from mainline churches for good, yes, but I think that better days are still ahead of us. I believe if we build that atmosphere of hope our ministy will grow because of it.

What does it mean to love your neighbor

The question asked of Jesus was "who is my neighbor" but I think the harder question is what does it mean to "love them." The example Jesus gave is an easy one to see. The Good Samaritan sees a person in a need and reaches out with medical attention and personal care. While I think there are times each of us is like the priest and the Levite who cross over to avoid the injured man, I think they, and us, know what it would take to care for the person. One of the books I am reading at present talks about the need to love your congregation. It may seem obvious but I know there are times we all struggle to love people we are working with. When I worked at a youth center there were several kids who got under my skin on such a regular basis I probably would have been hard pressed to say I loved them. The illustration that was made in the book was about the prennially negative person in a congregation who can become destructive to the efforts of the overall congregation. Here is the tension I found in what the author was saying: on the one hand they emphasized that churches should not be driven by results to the expense of loving their members. At the same time the author seemed to say if someone was too negative and threatened to make the congregation dysfunctional it was better to have them leave than to let their negativity spread. While I know that one person's views can have as much of a negative effect as a positive one, is that really the loving thing to do. It seems like there are two ways of viewing this person. Either they are so negative that no one can help them, o they have individual problems and need to be helped with. A person could be quite positive but no longer comfortable with the style of worship, or size of a congregation, in which case it would be a loving action to help them find a church that can really fit their needs and desires. O the other hand, if a person is perennially negative, it is really loving simply to shove them off on someone else so that your church can grow. Can a Christian really believe that anyone is uncurable, since that would seem to make them beyond the reach even of God. But there is still a question of should the needs of one person hijack the mission of any church. Is there a way to care for a love this person that does not impede the actions of the church. Is the author right that at some point you cannot let one person bring everyone down. I would hate to make that choice but perhaps that is the challenge that I must face as a pastor. I guess it is probably my job to make the call on when someone is causing too much harm for the congregation. I still feel that what is lacking, and surprisingly given the tone of his book, was th sense of letting God play a role in the healing of, or the decision to help a person leave. I guess it just feels that the love the author advocates is not a selfless love, but a selfish love. The author seems to say love the person as long as it does not hurt your cause, but in fact love them to help your cause. Is it not a better testament to love to stay with them through it all? These are hard questions, and I do not know that there are easy answers. I just feel that when it comes to church we are better to keep asking, to keep challenging ourselves, and trusting in God.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Responding to Politics with Love

I want to keep this blog about my role as a minister, but I also feel I need to respond to events in the world as they strike me. I hope this can be achieved without simply resorting to a rant about people I disagree with. So now I will begin

I was purusing last night to see what was happening in the world. In doing so I happened upon an article about Mary Cheney, the daughter of the vice-president. It was expressing the dismay of many conservatives at the choice of Mary and her partner to have a child. What struck me most was the reaction of one member of Focus on the Family. "Carrie Gordon Earll, a policy analyst for the conservative Christian ministry Focus on the Family, expressed empathy for the Cheney family but depicted the pregnancy as unwise.

'Just because you can conceive a child outside a one-woman, one-man marriage doesn't mean it's a good idea,' Earll said. 'Love can't replace a mother and a father.'" (quoted from

I am dismyed by her final statement, "love can't replace a mother and a father." My reaction is not about the issue of homosexuality, or artifical insemination, or anything like that, but at the great harm that is caused by such a statement. I consider myself fortunate to have gone through my life with the presence of both my parents. Neither death nor divorce left me in a position where I never saw them. In her attempt to attack the situation of Cheney, Earll has done two things I consider bad, she has (perhaphs unintentionally) made anyone who lost a parent as a child seem inferior. Earll seems to imply that despite the love of the remaining parent, nothing can replace the previous parent, that some negative harm has been done. It also ignores the possibility that a parent is more than just being there. There are too many abusive examples of mothers and fathers in our society today to be able to make a blanket statement that a child is better off having a mother and father.

The second and more troubling part of her statement is what I really want to consider this morning. Perhaps it is a romantic notion of mine, but I want to believe in the power of love. I take very seriously the writings of Paul in Corinthians when he says "faith, hope, and love abide ... and the greatest of these is love." I guess what I am getting at is a concern that too often people of faith are willing to sacrifice faith, to expose bad theology in order to make a political statement. I believe that Christianity has the ability to, and should be used to make a statement against the trends of society and of politics.

When I read Earll's statement I see a concern for all of us. How do we make sure that we do not lose love in the midst of politics. How do make sure our passion for issues does not cloud our love of God, each other, and especially ourselves. I think if Earll had simply said she did not believe that it was a wise choice for Cheney and her partner I would have perhaps disagreed but left it at that. Instead she makes a statement that I believe is damaging to how people percieve Christians. Maybe the real question is what is Focus on the Family, a political group first and a Christian group second, or a Christian group first and a politcal group second. I want to state that I use Focus on the Family because of the example that Earll creates, but I believe the same question could be asked of groups on all sides of this issue, or any issue. If a group is a Christian group first and foremost, then it should not make a poltical point at the expense of beliefs.

As I consider the past electoral season I was struck most profoundly by the negative attacks made on other politicans. Has love for our neighbor been lost for the sake of politics. My greatest concern in Earll's statement is that being right and making a point has become the most important part of political dialogue and that love for one another and respect for each other has been sacrificed for he sake of a cause.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Beyond Numbers

Let me start by explaining my route to church every Sunday. There are really only two options for me to take to get from apartment to church. Until recently one of these has been under construction, forcing me to tak the other route. The other route goes along Hwy 210 and takes me past two large churches before I finally reach my churh. It is hard not to make the comparison and to look enviously at these larger churches with their overflowing parking lots. That is why I was glad this Sunday when I could take the backroads route to my church which allows me to wind my way past the lakes and enjoy myself as I get ready to worship. It is too easy to get caught in the trap of trying to compare churches. We use all sorts of measures, members, people in worship, number of Bible studies. Each time we try and declare what really matters in a church.
Worship at Light of the Lakes was smaller than in previous weeks. I want to see the church grow, and so every thing can seem like a setback to what I desire. I have preached enough now to know how important size is. Usually the fuller the church the more energy I have in my sermon and the more response I get from the congregation, which in turns feeds back into the energy I have. Despite the smaller size of worship I did not experience a drain on my energy as I sometimes do when I do get any feedback. Even so, it was hard not to feel down about things later that afternoon. In my slightly depressed thinking I came to realize something: there are two ways for worship to go. Worship can be an experience that draws people in, that gives people an experience and relationship with God. That is what I believe the other two churches on 210 have. They have a worship service that draws people to the church. Since they seem so successful it is easy to want to be like them. The second type of successful worship is one that empowers people to go out into the world. That is the kind of worship that fuels people for the real ministry they do, which is not inside the church but outside it. As I look at my small congregation, with their dedication and love, I sometimes wonder if this is not a better way to go.
That is why I am glad that the construction has started to clear away. Now there is an open road to my church that is different from other churches. Now I have a way to get there without forcing myself into a comparison with churches that are quite unlike mine. Someone raised a point yesterday that as a small church we should be grateful. Larger churches do not always have the same intimate connection that my members have. It takes a great deal of effort to maintain the sense of family that exists at my church in a larger setting. For someone as mathematically oriented as I am it is easy to get caught in numbers as a measure of success, when really in ministry it is simply about asking a difference in people's lives, about sharing a ministry with the world, whether that is through worship or through going out into the community and making a difference

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Beyond mere work

It is Saturday, and my agenda for the day consisted of writing a sermon, liturgies, bulletins, and newsletters. Today was exceptional in that I got to the bulletin before Sunday morning. The bulletin is something that gets done as my brain wakes up and prepares to preach on Sunday morning. It is part of my routine. Today I decide to get it done early. As I sat an watched a movie I folded bulletins and newsletters. There was something incredibly peaceful about this time. Bulletins are usually hastely folded as people file into church on Sunday morning. The bulletins at Park church, where I am associate are usually folded by the secretary. As I folded the bulletins I was overcome with a sense of satisfaction and peace. Not because there was something special about these bulletins. Despite my best efforts I am sure there are still typos and things I forgot to include. As I gazed at the Order of Worship that is what I saw, worship. Somehow the words, the numbers, the events, the hymns, they all blurred into one great worship of God. The bulletin was a vehicle to the Divine. I do not know how to explain it. Preparing the bulletin was not about one more task that had to be done so I could sleep well tonight, preparing the bulletin was entering into a spirit of worship. As a Pastor it is easy for God to get lost in the details, in all the little things that I need to do as part of my job. Today it was not merely work, today it really was about enabling others to worship God. Today all the little things I did for my small church seemed a part of some greater presence, a part of God's continued voice in the world. My prayer tonight is the same I always pray before worship and before I preach. I pray that someone how God finds a way to transform my work into something meaningful to someone. I pray that someone hears God in the scripture, or sees God in the lights on the altar, or in their neighbor in worship. I pray that people can just get to know God. Tonight I also pray that I do not forget what a bulletin is really about, that is never just work to be done, but is always an act of worship, the most important thing I do every week.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Sinners, Saints, and Snow

I hate a winter without snow, I say this for two reasons, despite my ideal location in Northern Minnesota, everyone else seems to be having a snow day today, while the ground up here remains barren, with only a few freezer burn scars of the nightly frost to distract from its dull, dead, brown. What I really want is snow to cover the ground and make everything glisten, gleam in shimmering white.
I am reading the book "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller and the author made an observation around the nature of humanity that I struggled with. He was looking at the terrbile things that were happening in the Congo and was asking himself what cause these people to be so evil, to commit such acts. He suggested two ways of looking at things, either we in the United States are more sophisticated than those people and so this is why we are not prone to such acts, or we too are capable of such evil. The first statement would seem to suggest a superiority of race or culture that he did not want to make, so he felt compelled to the second one. Using the example of our driving when a cop is around he said "that the soul of man, unwatched, is perverse."
Another book on my reading pile is "Becoming a Blessed Church" by N. Graham Standish. I do not want to make this into simply a book study but Standish makes another observation that I am still struggling with. Standish writes about the power of the demonic. Without going to much into it, what really struck me was his explanation seemed to make it so at least some of the evil that we do is not our fault but cause by demonic forces.
I do not like either of this options, I think they take away from our free will, something I really believe in. I believe that we have the power to choose for ourselves what we will do. Certainly it is influenced by our upbringing, our situation, and all of these factors, but I believe it is our choice. To chalk it up to the perversity of our souls, or the demonic forces minimizes the evil we do, and I believe conversly diminishes the good as well.
I guess I do not know whether the ground is normally brown and dead, or green and vibrant, but I do know, I want it to snow.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Movements to Institutions

Statement of Purpose:

One of the lasting lessons that I have from my undergraduate experience is the tension between movements and institutions. Methodists and Baptists successfully moved across the United States because unlike the "mainline" churches of the time, they did not have the huge buildings that tied them to the East Coast while the people moved west. Over time however Methodists became increasingly affluent and settled down and the church settled with them. A similar tension can be seen in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Groups like the NAACP and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadship Council) were established groups with hierarchy and bureaucracy. By contrast the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) was much more of a grass roots group. As I remember these lessons from history I think about the state of The United Methodist Church today. One of the appealling things about the emerging church movement to me is that it gets back to an idea of grass roots. Rather than trying to work through the burdens of existing churches, it attempts to move with the people to were ministry is needed most. But what are the lessons that can be learned from history on this. Certainly the staying power of the the NAACP can be seen while SNCC is no longer around. SNCC was a powerful movement, largely credited with desegrated lunch counters in the Southeast and with adding in vote registration throughout the South. How does the church today maintain the spirit of movement while living in its existing church structure? The answers are not easy to obtain, and maybe only history will tell us, but through this blog I hope to live in the tension and to consider what the church has to offer to us today.