Saturday, December 29, 2007

Importance of Passion

I have to admit that growing up I never really enjoyed country music. I cannot say why at an early age I did not appreciate it, but regardless, while I will not run screaming from a room if it is turned on, it has never been something I really actively sought to listen to. Last night I had the pleasure of going to the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, TN. The Bluebird Cafe started as more of a cafe/restaurant , but has since become a performance venue for aspiring and established country music writers. The basic format is that you enjoy a meal, or drinks, or desserts while listening to four artist perform songs they have written, they each take turns, go in a circle, with the audience watching from their tables on all sides. As the evening progressed I came to better understand why I do not personally care for country music, and at the same time also realized why I was really enjoying the musical performance. Country music is simply too different a culture from who I am, a fact made quite clear during one song which offered tree-huggers as an example of how "the world is going to hell." What made it enjoyable for me, even when I did not care for a individual songs lyrics was the passion which each performer put into their work. These were their songs, that they had written, and these words were ones that spoke deeply to them. I could tell from watching the people around me, that the draw for many of them was in hearing the writers "tell it like it was," that for these people as well, the songs rang true. What made the songs good was not technical perfection, or universal appeal, but that in each one was the heart and the soul of the writer, the passion of the individual. If they were simply doing covers of other people's songs I doubt my experience would have been quite the same. I know that something I struggle with every week as I prepare to lead worship is how to make everything perfect, so that everyone is happy with what happened and no mistakes are made. An important insight I think I gained from my vacation is just the opposite, that what I really need to do is focus on preaching with passion, leading with passion, and if I have that, even when people disagree with my theology, or the musical selection, they will gain a greater appreciation for the passion that they see, and that to me seems more important right now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thoughts from the Dome

I attend the Vikings game last Monday against the Chicago Bears. It was an interesting experience for me as it was my first professional football game. I have been to numerous Twins games at the Dome, but the added 20-30,000 people really makes a difference on how crowd it feels getting in and out of there. The observation I want to share about this experience actually applies equally to when I have been there for baseball or football. On of the things that alway impressed me about airlines was that as stressed and rushed as most people are, there is an order and a civility to exiting a plane. Almost without fail people wait for the row in front of them to leave, rather than trying to rush past them as they try and get luggage down or fiddle with their purse. This is not the case at the Dome. When the game ends, it is every fan for themselves when it comes to leaving the place. Certainly the closer you are to the exit the quicker you are able to get out, but there is not a sense of order or politeness in how people leave the stadium.

As I reflected on this while watching people continue to stream past others wanting to leave, I came up with my theory, this was an instance of the personal vs. the crowd. On a plane, you are in a close space with everyone. No matter how much you might have been annoyed by the person in front of you crushing your knees by leaning back, you can still see them and relate to them. It is very clearly an individual that you are pushing in front of. At a game you are simply forcing your way through a crowd. Stalin's quote "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic" seems very appropriate here. In fact watching people move through crowds at a stadium, there is little sense of manners about it. People usually are deliberately not looking at the people they are forcing their way past. If you press against the person in front of you, no one can cut in. Now I can understand not wanting to get separated from the people you are with, and I know how bad traffic gets leaving the Dome or another stadium, but still the bottom line is people as a group behave very differently when confronted with such a crowd. And I know it is not just that sports fans are less polite than travelers, since no one has every apologized for leaning their seat back into my knees, or talking too loud on their phone while waiting for takeoff. While I have experienced my share of rudeness at games, I have also had the most obnoxious Cardinals fan in the world offer his jacket to my sister when she was cold during a game at Wrigley Field. At the Vikings game I was sitting on the third seat from the end of a row of what seemed like the most active people in the stadium, I was getting up every other play it seemed at times. But even then I know several of them apologized for making us stand, people in the row are close enough to be personal, but that nameless person waiting to leave is not enough a person to warrant the same manners to.

My experiences at the Dome are microcosm of how we live our lives, it is easy to be nice to the neighbor, the one that we know and can see as a person, the challenge is in seeing Christ in the stranger, the faceless person in the crowd. We need to find ways to look more broadly and notice the people we are trying to ignore. I know I am guilty of this, I am apologetic as I cut people off in my car, and would be the type to cut in front with a quiet excuse me. But as I reflect on it, the challenge is to really respect people as individuals and not as crowd. To see the Christ in each of them. Guess that is just one more thing to add to my To Do List for 2008.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The tight-rope of minsitry

Today I have been thinking about the challenges of being a young adult in ministry, particularly a doing ministry to other young adults. A while ago a friend of mine called me out for being too pastoral and there certainly is a challenge in my friendships of tending to be come pastoral, which changes the nature of the relationship, since then I am suddenly acting more like a wise adviser than someone who is equal to them. My fondest memories of college and even of seminary were the conversations I had with people about their faith. Often they were late at night, quiet moments, when people would share with me something of what they believed, or even something they struggled with. I love people's faith stories, I love to hear them, I love to share in them, and I love to help people explore them more deeply. Part of my passion for doing ministry to young adults is I believe there are other people out there who have similar struggles to the people I knew in college and I want to help them with their faiths. Where this is all going I think is just realizing how easy it is to blur the line between being a friend to someone and being a pastor to them. As I think about meeting young adults in my area, do I seem them as potential church members or potential friends? The debate constantly rages as to whether one can be both. I know from my own experiences that is hard to separate the two but that it also hard to be a real friend to someone if you are their pastor and hard to pastor a friend without it changing the nature of that relationship also.

I don't have answers to all of this ... but the issue weighs on my mind today. If anyone has insights into the tension between friend and pastor, I would love for you to share here.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Snow Day

I am sitting at my computer, a warm beverage in hand, and snow gently falling (again) outside the window. Is there a better time for some good thinking? I love snow for a variety of reasons, but one that I am appreciating right now is that it gives me reasons to slow down. I do not always take them, in fact I feel I have run more errands in the last few snowy days than I usually do, but even while running errands I think about whether or not I need to go out, and try to go slower when I am out. As a pastor I have a tendency to race from one location to another, always trying to do lots of different things. Snow and racing around do not go well together. I am always amused and at the same time worried about the people who try to race in the snow. My big theme this Advent season is trying to do less and that is really hard to do. There is a tendency around the holidays to want to do more, to try and work harder, to get more done. I think the falling snow is just another reminder how each of us need to take a moment and slow down. There is a quiet peacefulness to snow fall that I believe needs to be celebrated. I do not know what I am going to give up today to just relax and enjoy the snow, but I feel that part of what each of us is called to do is listen to what God is saying through the weather and find some quiet moments during a season of carols, noise, and rush.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Youth Say the Smartest Things

It seems that almost without fail I have reason on Monday to be impressed with what my youth said in youth group on Sunday. A couple of weeks ago I was asked about the phrase "being born of water and the spirit." One of my youth was curious how come I talked about it being something that occurred at Baptism while her Bible teacher at the Christian school she attends talked about it referring to our physical birth and then our spiritual birth. It was a wonderfully sophisticated question from a high schooler who is still very new to the faith. This week the distinction was around a morality quiz I had found through and was using with the kids. All of the questions centered around differ events that required the sacrifice the one for the many. On one of the many difficult issues another of my youth made the important distinction. He would only participate in such a sacrifice if all of the rest of those affected where also willing to consent, in other words he would do it for the betterment of the group but not only for himself if the rest of those being saved were not comfortable with it.
In addition to just being proud of my youth, the point of all this is my own pondering on how we continue to develop such great minds. How do we keep making the church a place associated with active thought, not mindless following. One of the biggest criticisms of faith seems to be that it encourages people not to think. While I would agree that at times different faith traditions have discouraged new ideas, I think you can find that at one time or another most have also actively encouraged new thinking and new ideas. How does the church help to perpetuate a stereotype that the church encourages though rather than discourages it? How do make sure that people know that part of being a faithful follower of God is learning how to think for ourselves? Youth are not the only smart, curious people in the church, so how do we stimulate everyone to seek to better understand God, and what God wants for each of us in our lives? So in conclusion, people should be smart and ask great questions, like my youth. :)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Politcally Neutral

I am 75% sure I did some sort of musing on this topic several months ago, but the topic came up again in my life and I feel the need to muse again, so hopefully it will not be all re-runs, if it is, then that is just my small way of supporting the Screenwriters Guild. One of the churches I serve is looking at its building use policy and trying to decide how best to word it. One of the phrases that came up was that we would only let politically neutral groups use the building. The concern of church is members is wanting a clear policy that let's us say no to highly partisan groups, in particular political parties. But I find the implications of the statement interesting. I do not believe The United Methodist Church is a politically neutral group. While it does not support any major political party, it does take some highly political stands. This is also the way I think it should be. The church should be advocating for people, whether it is people's rights, the needs of different groups, and so on. The statement "Christ is king" was meant to be political, so we should be living into that heritage. So while the church itself should be political, how much can it align itself with other political groups? Should we open our doors to every political group? Or only ones that we agree with? Is simply providing people a place to meet a sign that we implicately agree with what they are saying?
So what sort of answers do I have to all the questions I am posing? I think that some of these are hard issues to deal with. I really believe that the church needs to be ready to be a home for political groups. It was because of the backbone network of churches that the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's succeed. Even then King faced pressure from many in the church to take a more neutral standpoint. It is easy for us now to look back at the Civil Rights movement and talk about how churches were doing the right thing to be involved. But are there issues going on today that need the direct support of the church? I have two thoughts on this issue. One is that I believe the church needs to not be afraid of alienating people because of what it stands for, if it feels it does so because of what Scriptures and God are calling it do. At the same time I think the church needs to be constantly open to creating room for conversation. The church should not just be about seeking to live out Christ's message in the political realm, but should also be creating a space for dialogue. I really love the statement "Open hearts, open minds, open doors." I believe that part of that commitments means that the church should be open to people we do not agree with, and part of the being the church is providing a safe place for conversations to happen that cannot easily happen in so many other places in our highly fragmented society.
As I continue to reflect on all this I am left thinking in several different directions, so I imagine this all makes a lot less sense to my readers than it does to me as a writer, but I would hope that it stirs you to think even half as much as it as caused me to think, cause that is why I post these after all. Have a great Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Who ever took away August, September, and October, I would like them back please. It is hard to believe it is almost Thanksgiving already.

Last week as part of my continuing quest for ordination I was part of a session where the probationary members, myself included, met with our mentors. One of the things that we talked about was listening. We all read part of an essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer about listening. It mentioned the need for pastors to talk, or at least that is how I remember it, if he was not specifically talking about pastors, it certainly applies. As paid experts, we have a tendency to feel we need to talk and express opinions. Whether it is because we feel we have to, or because we just love to preach, we tend to be better at speaking rather than listening. I myself am a great example of that, and the very fact that I spend time every week blogging about my thoughts shows that this clearly is an issue for me. For all the benefits of the Internet, one of the great dangers it raises is that of everyone talking and no one listening. I know people read my blog, or at least I know people load up my blog's page, the reading part is just assumed by me. The problem is the reading does not ensure a dialog, and may just encourage further monologues. I tend to read as my news source, not because they are perfect in representing what is happening, but because they work for me. CNN has recently added the ability for people to post comments on different articles, in particular political items. My tendency is to read these articles, read the posts and then rant to myself about the comments that are made, many of which seem rather insensitive and offensive to different people. the point is, even the CNN does provoke me to think, it does not actually create dialogue. While most people who post seem to read previous posts, the posts don't tend to actually talk to one another, just talk at one another. Because of the facelessness of the Internet, it has become more easy than ever to simply ignore the person you are attempting to "speak" with and simply go about espousing your opinions. How do we use the Internet, and just regular conversation, not as a way of demonstrating what we know, but listening and learning what others have to say, resisting the temptation to fill in silence, but instead letting it hang in the air to stimulate our thoughts and conversations?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cynicism, Hope, and the Total Depravity of Humanity

It seems like throughout the week, when I am at meetings, in my car, or otherwise completely busy, great topics come to mind that I feel would be great to spend some time and think through more, to work on in my blog. Usual however, by the time I get seated in front of a computer, with a comforting and inspiring cup of chai in my hand, the ideas are forgotten, or seem a lot less inspiring. This may be one such an occasion, but I am going to see if it works.

The original thought I had was to talk about cynicism and my struggles with how it seems to conflict with a faith in God and what God can do. Usually the cynicism is not directed towards God, but towards people, and usually more particularly, some sort of system, the government, the church, or the like. All of this has begun to merge in my head with the research I have been doing about the Reformation for my adult Sunday school class. One of the big things in common with most of the Reformers was a belief in the total depravity of humanity, that left to on our devices we will run away from God towards sin and evil. A belief that makes the cynicism I espouse and at times encounter seem a little tame.

The conflict I have with all of this is around where does a faith in God override our skepticism about humanity. I prefer to think of myself as an optimist, but I am aware that sometimes this seems to require ignoring a history of results that supports a much more cynical outlook of things. My belief is not that of the naive, that I just don't think that people can be bad or something, but accepts a reality of who they are and hopes for something better. I never liked the concept of the total depravity of humanity, because it seemed to imply that either God had created us as flawed beings (which no one really wants to say) or that we as humans have the ability to so completely screw up God's creation, which either glorifies us, or again implies something about God's creation to begin with. While I agree with the general idea that no one can live without sin, and that without God's grace we are all to be found lacking in someway, I don't think this means we should be so negative about our existence, nor does it mean we should just forget that God's grace is around us in abundance, at work in the world everyday.

I think in the end cynicism just gets too depressing. It is easy to be skeptical about everything that goes on around me, to feel like nothing that is done will make a difference. I know the reality is that many attempts that take place, in our lives and in the church fail, but that does not mean we should just give hope. I keep going back to the passage in Acts, where the Pharisees are discussing what to do about Peter and the rest of the disciples who keep preaching in the temple. One finally says that if they are from God, nothing the Pharisees could do will stop them, but if they are not from God, the Pharisees have nothing to worry about. We need to have that God is at work in the world, and that there is a reason to hope, even when our cynical side says that these things never work. Most church plants fail, but that does not mean we should stop planting churches, it just means we have to keep trying, and know that God will find a way to work through us, to overcome our failings, and make something truly miraculous happen. There are lots of things happening in my churches and the the Minnesota Annual Conference, I could be cynical about these changes, but I prefer to have hope, that God will find a way to use what is going on for some greater good, it may not be a logical leap to make, but I prefer it as a leap of faith.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vulnerability of God

I preached a sermon two weeks ago on the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. The New Interpreter's Bible commentary for this story brought up a very interesting idea, the vulnerability of God in this story. I am sure I am not alone in being uncomfortable with the command that God gives Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Even if it is just a test it seems a very cruel test. The commentator for this passage makes the interesting point that while this is a test of Abraham and his faith, God has a stake it in as well. If Abraham fails the test and lacks faith, what happens to God's promise? Will God still make Abraham the founder of a great nation? Could God be wrong about Abraham? If God cannot be wrong, then is it really a test? Since God already know the answer it does not seem to be a good test, nor is it really a teaching moment since there is no hint of anything learned from the experience, other than the faithfulness of God and of Abraham. Strange as it may be, for me the vulnerability of God is comforting. If God is as unchanging and unchangeable as more orthodox thinkers like Aquinas believe, then my life makes no difference in God's eyes. It cannot make a difference. In order for my life to mean something to God, for God to want me to be saved, there has to be something that God wants and cannot, or choses not to control. If this is the case then God can be let down, God can lose, at least on a local level. If God truly wants the world to be redeemed
(which I believe is the message of Scriptures) it seems that one of two things must be the case, God will redeem the world regardless of what we do, or in fact it is possible through our actions for God to not get what God wants. While God may or may not choose to redeem the whole world, I believe that at some level it is possible, through the gift of free will that humans have, for God to not get what God wants, this is perhaps the real way that humanity can sin. While I cannot be certain of all of this, and I am certainly open to a third option, I wanted to say what strikes me most about the second option, that it is possible for God to not get what God wants, it means that what we do really matters. Not simply matters on the small scale of how it affects our own lives, but matters in the grand scheme of things, matters to God. Suddenly the imperative to go into the world, to make the world a better place becomes all the more real. What are you doing to help God today?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Too good for mere money

I watched the movie "Facing the Giants" on Sunday with an enthusiastic crowd from church. There are several quotes that can preach in that movie, and I felt that it had a lot to offer in terms of things to consider. I wanted to start with the part that unsettled me the most, not because I felt the movie was bad, but because that is the part that is disturbing me, and it may have nothing to do with the movie. Without going too much into the film, the main character, a football coach, is struggling in all aspects of his life, his marriage, finances, football team, inability to have children. Everything around him seems to be falling to pieces. Ultimately he decides to give his life up to God and change how he is doing things. Suddenly things fall into place, the football team starts winning, he gets a new truck, a raise, everything seems to be going well. Even when the team is eliminated from the playoffs, fate (God) works in their favor and the team that beat them is disqualified. At the very end of the movie the man has everything, a winning team, a great job, a great marriage, even the children he was told were not medically possible.

This is where I struggle with the movie. The message of the movie is clearly stated, through God, anything and everything is possible. God finds a way to bless this man in all aspects of his life, removing seemingly impossible hurdles to help him succeed and prosper. On the one hand I do not want to try and say that God is not able to do great things, or perhaps even do all things, but I just struggle that the message of the movie is that God will give us what we want if we just have faith. I believe we should have faith, and I believe God will provide for our lives, but I struggle with the way the idea that God will provide in exactly the ways that we want. For me God is too good for mere money. The gifts that God gives us seem to go beyond such a material thing. I know that the Old Testament is filled with signs of God's prosperity, Abraham, Lot, Job, etc, but does this mean that this is the way that God is going to work in all our lives? I don't believe that God is simply there to provide for what we want. I believe that God is meant to challenge us to something more. It seems a little vain to believe that we know what is best for us and that God will provide that for us if we just follow God. Suddenly following God becomes a sound investment on our part, a way to obtain what we want. I think the concern I see in all of this is the idea of a prosperity Gospel, that for those of faith, God will s

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Letting go and taking hold

Letting go is hard. Light of the Lakes has begun to talk about creating a missional focus for the budget, specifically taking a percentage of all that we get in giving and moving that on to different causes, both locally and globally. It is not an new idea, one that many churches do, but it is hard sometimes to make the first step towards it. Light of the Lakes is doing so not based on the knowledge that we have the money, but on the faith that God will provide for us. It is not a financially sound move, but I believe it is a faithfully sound move. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch, but I liken it to the Kierkegaardian leap of faith, moving us beyond what we know into an uncertain realm where we just have to trust in God. It is hard, for someone like me who obsesses about numbers and takes comfort in logical certainties, there is no certainty in a budget based on faith. The challenge is to let go of our desires for control and certainty and instead move into an area of trust and faith, because that is where I believe the church is meant to be. it is a hard journey for me and for others, but one I recommend as part of growing in faith.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Be Still

Both of my churches are moving into Stewardship campaigns as we prepare for our next fiscal year. This obviously gives me as a pastor a lot to think about, sermons to formulate, letters to write, and then the add stress I get from wondering if it will all be enough. In the midst of all this stress however I had a thought, a moment of peace. "Be still and know that I am God." It is the thought that has been going through my head for the last day. I like it. Here I am getting ready to talk about having faith in God and yet somehow I am still worried about whether I am doing enough. I know I still have to do write the sermon and mail the letters, there is a work I need to do, but I don't need to stress about all of the results, I have to remember that I am not the one that is doing the real work here. God is the one at work in people's hearts. Stewardship campaigns are not about sermons and cute gimmicks, these are simply the vehicles that God uses. I can never do enough on this, until I just relax and trust in God. "Be still know that I am God"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Competition in the Church

I was attending a meeting about planning and visioning a future for Park UMC when an interesting way of looking at things came to me. We were talking about factors inside the church and outside the church when our leader brought up the term "competitive knowledge." In the business world this is the knowledge of what your competition is doing, so McDonalds being aware that Subway is really pushing the healthy side of fast food, or Nissan knowing what Toyota is doing with Hybrids. The tendency in the church, and my first instinct was to think, that for Park, that would mean looking at what the Lutherans down the street are doing, or the Assemblies of God across the river. Certainly it is good to know what other churches are offering, but I think there is more important competitive knowledge in the church. If we are to think about this not as a how we can poach people who might go to the Lutherans instead, we are limiting who we are looking for, even if we are not trying to take their members, just their potential members, we are not helping the greater Kin-dom. I think the real competitive knowledge we need in the church is knowing why people are choosing to stay home instead. Even we assume the Church has something to offer people, how are they getting this somewhere else. Who are people turning to instead of the church with their problems? Family? The local bar? Oprah? What are people doing to fill the spiritual side of them instead of church? This is the real competitive knowledge we need. How can we find ways to reach those people, rather than just worrying about what the Lutherans are doing, or the Catholics, or whomever it is in your area. The meeting was great, the conversation was energizing, but that thought alone seemed to frame it all so much better for me. Now I just need to work on figuring it out.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reverse Polarity

In a recent posting in his blog, David Bard commented on his experience surrounding a peace protest. One of the things that really struck me was his struggle with his own position relative the speakers. As I understood it he wanted a far more nuanced and complex conversation than the simple rhetoric that was being expressed. I think the dialogue we need on such an issue does not work in the arena of sound bits and monologues that is todays political world. On isues such as the war in Iraq it seems the country has been lead to believe there are really only two answers "with us" and "against us" all that changes is who the "us" is. I do not think this is really limited to this incident, or even this topic as I will explain.
In preparation for my sermon this week I wanted to explore some of the arguments of atheists to better understand why it is that people do not believe. I do this not in a hope of proving atheists wrong, but because I believe that Christians are likely struggling with the same issues and barriers to our beliefs, and so I want to find the people who can safely express their doubts and problems so I can better understand my own. I trolled the Internet for a bit and was quickly rewarded with a wonderfully heated debate between an apologetic for Christianity and several atheists posting on a blog. The argument basically consisted of both sides trying to lay out their own intellectual credentials and supremacy and at the same time assail the position of the other. As I read through the postings I found my self nodding in agreement at times with both sides on the issue. I felt that the Christian apologeticist did a much better job of accurately interpreting both Scripture and Christian history. At the same time I felt the atheists raised some wonderful questions and issues to be considered. The tragedy in all of this was that neither side was willing or able to give an inch. At no point would anyone concede the other person had made a legitimate point. Some of that is probably the nature of blogs, and Internet posting, but I also think there is something deeper to it.
As I was driving to church the other day I found the final piece of the puzzle. I was listening to MPR, Midmorning, where Kerri Miller was interviewing former Mideast Envoy Dennis Ross. In the part that I caught Ross shared his experiences negotiating with a belief the then-ruler of Syria. He talked about the art of negotiating and how it was seen, especially by this ruler, as an war of attrition, gradually wearing down the other persons defenses until their were forced to concede. He talked about part f what was needed was an iron will, the ability to outlast the other person physically and mentally. I can imagine Plato rolling over in his grave.
This is the heart of the issue however, the point is not reaching what is the Good, as Plato would say, allowing the Turth to come out, but instead wearing down the opponent until they concede to your side, whether or not it is the correct one. If it were possible for us to have absolute Truth, then there is no need to hold a conversation, and a monologue of facts will suffice. But I think we know that no one really has this absolute truth. What is needed then is a way to create more spaces for dialogue and conversation. We need to stop making debate a war of attrition and more of a joint seeking of what is best.
I do not know the source of this, but in my mind there is an alarming trend in the culture as i see it today, to push even harder for polarity, for this idea that there is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad (evil), a with us and against us. I want to see us change that culture. I want to see us find new ways to work with each other, so that the goal is not submission of the other, but a betterment of all. There will be a place for public speeches, rhetoric, and apologetic debate, but I want the norm to be more a climate of dialogue, not simply about asserting who each of us is, but instead looking for who we want to become.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Building and Remodeling the Church

Churches get lots of extraneous phone calls from companies seek our business. In fact I think churches get more junk mail and "junk" calls than individual households do. It is for that reason that I am always wary when the phone rings. It seems that about 1 time in 10 the call is actually something connected to what the church does, the rest are calls offering satellite dishes or to help us with our nonexistent credit card. Occasionally we also get calls from various search sites, phone books, or other public listings that want to update their records. These can sometimes be the worst because the caller does not always have the best grasp of English and so I often find myself repeating what I have said. This last week I had a call that clearly fit into the last category. As I answered all their questions about our address, the name of the pastor, and so on, they came to a question that was intriguing to me, "is you church planning on building or remodeling?" The question caught me by surprise and so I quickly answered "no" since we are not really doing either or those at this moment. The call ended and I began to realized that not only was the answer "yes" for my church, since we were in the middle of several minor projects around the church, but also the church really did have a plan for building on a sanctuary space as the church grew in size, so even if the plans were not set in stone, the church was definitely planning on growing and needing to build on and expand its space. The more I thought about it the more I realized that I want "yes" to be the answer for every church. I know there is a lot of stress that comes with building and remodeling, and I don't mean that every church should be constantly do some sort of project, but I believe every church should be "planning" on building or remodeling. Every church should have as part of its plan for the future the understanding that as the years go by, the ministry needs of the area and the church are going to change, and with those changes, whatever the cause, there will be a need for the church to adapt. Part of that adaption might involve building or remodeling. I love the phrase "moving on to perfection" but I also do not thing that "perfection" is ever something that can be attained by a church. I am willing to concede that a church can be "perfect" for a time and a place, but to remain perfect requires the church to change, because time will pass and what was perfect for on instance is not going to remain so. The challenge for all of us as part of the church is to help to make sure the church is continuing to look at what the needs are around us and consider how me need to build and remodel to be effect in ministry, to "move on towards perfection." It requires sacrifice and the challenge of constantly being ready for change, but I believe that in the end it has value for us. In the end it helps us to be ready and waiting when the Holy Spirit moves through our community and calls us in a new direction, because like it or not, the Holy Spirit is constantly working to remodel both us and the church, we just need to be ready to move along with it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Decentralized leadership

I just finished reading a fascinating article in the current issue of Christian Century. The article talked about the difference between starfish and spiders, mainly that spiders, like humans function by using a centralized place for commands and leadership. Starfish, on the other hand function more as a group, without the same core leadership, but instead in a flexible network. The article then goes on to illustrate how this flexibility in fact helps starfish.

One of the key parts of the article in my mind was the suggestion that a similar style of leadership could help most denominations. The observation was that the more decentralized model, rather than creating chaos and disorder actually allows a system the flexibility to deal with the world. The brain functions in a similar way, not just having one way of doing things that is the same for all brains, but instead has the ability to map out all sorts of different pathways so that each person finds a their own way of thinking, of sorting through all the complex things that happen in a brain.

I am not sure I completely understand the science, either behind the starfish or the brain, but the idea of a more decentralized method seems appealing to me. As the article I read states, the flexibility of such a system increases creativity. The real strength I see is that in the context of the church it frees people to do ministry. Rather than focusing just on one way of doing things, or following a set procedure, individuals are empowered to do ministry in the way that works best for them. This does not mean we need to surrender all centralized leadership. Vision setting as well as holding up a standard of quality for ministry are still important aspects of a system, both at a local and denominational level, but at the same time freedom should be given to let new ministry take form in whatever the ways that they do. In the Gospels there is a great example of this when the disciples are complaining because someone not in their group is casting out demons in Jesus' name. Jesus however understands that what is important is the ministry that is being done, not the exact method of how, or by who, it is happening.

I am not sure the exact way to implement these ideas in my own context and ministry, but I really like the idea of working to empower ministry where the energy is, rather than trying to legislate a path for that energy to move along. I think part of being a pastor is finding ways to help everyone else do ministry, to empower the rest of the system to respond to the needs around them and to take their passion for God and share it. It may not work for everyone, but I like the idea of being more like a starfish.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Spirituality and Biking

On Monday I took advantage of a little time off from work and some beautiful early fall weather to take a bike ride along the Paul Bunyan trail. The trail starts in Baxter and goes all the way up to Bemedji. Normally my biking is limited to trips to church or on the stationary bike in my apartment complex. This was quite a different experience, now I had a road to travel free from the distractions of traffic, surrounded by gorgeous scenery, and easily channeled to allow for an enjoyable ride with good exercise value. When I ride a stationary bike the challenge is setting a goal and continuing until that goal is met. If I just go until I am tired I stop after about six minutes, well, perhaps slightly longer than that, but I start to think about stopping pretty early on. In order to get a good work out I need a goal that can keep me going on the bike. My ride along the trial was nice because I had plenty to think about, plenty of time to think in, and also the nice fact that the entire time I was biking away from home, this meant that once I finally decided to to turn around I would still get more exercise getting back home, instead of just being able to stop when I got tired.
So how does this connect to spirituality. I think the struggle with my spiritual life right now is that it is too much like going on a stationary bike, I don't have a good destination or a goal, and so I go for a bit, get tired and stop. it would be a lot easier to maintain healthy habits and move towards spiritual growth if I had something to guide me, like a definite trail, and a clear goal or way of pushing me beyond my comfort level. I am not sure that spirituality ever be like that. I think that part of what makes spiritual growth hard is that it is not measured as easily as other things. These is not an easy test score to determine spirituality that you can check your growth against and see progress. We need to set some goals and motivate ourselves, not towards growth but just towards action. How do we make sure we are taking the time to do the work, pushing us not towards a concrete goal, but just towards a more concrete action of seeking. It is not a perfect metaphor, but it fits with the struggles I am having right now, how do I get my spiritual exercise when i so hard to track my progress. What struggles do others have in making progress spiritually? What are other ways of looking at this challenge? I am sure I will muse more later, but any thoughts are welcome

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Musings on Faith

Bishop Sally posted in her blog this week about the faith of Mother Teresa and how it was not this absolute thing but something that was at times filled with doubt. Her posting also caused me to look up Christopher Hitchens and read some of his thoughts around the psychological need for faith in God, something I believe he hopes can be overcome at some level. All of this has caused me to reflect on faith. I find the fact that Mother Teresa did not have a perfect unwavering faith to be a comforting one. I hold strongly to the idea that faith is meant to be questioned, tested and challenged as a way of affirming it. It would be foolish to think we get our faith right the first time we believe, it needs to be open to change. Descartes suggested the idea of questioning one's reality and deconstructing it, I believe he suggested once a year, but not more. The idea is to examine once again what it is we believe and to reaffirm it, or change it. Certainly our doubts around faith can happen more regularly and not as deliberately, but I think it all points to a need to reflect on what we hold to be true.
Since the start of the "modern" thinking, so again basically Descartes and on, there has been a desire to understand faith and a tendancy by some some to look for rational explanations for it. Philosophers and psychologists have offered theories about how faith is part of the brain's need to make sense of the world. Some people would offer this as further proof that God is simply a creation of our intellect, one more way we attempt to make sense of that which we cannot yet understand. I prefer to think of it in a different way, one that is influenced by the fact that I believe that God is the one in control and not us. The same information could be used to say that we are wired, created, shaped, with an affinity towards belief and faith. That seems much more powerful for me.
The power of faith to me is that it works not on concrete things that we prove but instead is an expression of our understanding and beliefs around things we cannot prove. I may be wrong, faith may all be part of my desire to cope, but my experiences tell me otherwise. We can try and rationally destroy faith, but I think in the end we are forced to replace it with something else, because it is a part of who we are. Scientists place a great deal of faith in data, that their perceptions of the world are in fact accurate. Hume and Descartes both observed that such perceptions are in fact quite fallible. Faith is not meant as the perfect answer, it is the imperfect answer which grows and expands with us, and when the time comes, the imperfect will pass away, as Paul says, and then just the perfect will remain, a real knowledge and a love of God.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Need for Grace

As someone who watches football and reads the news I have been following the scandal surrounding Michael Vick for the last few months. I have found responses of people to be fascinating as well as Vick's own response yesterday after he plead guilty to the charges before him. In his statement Vick expressed remorse, contrition and spoke of a serious intent to become a better person, as contrasted with becoming a better football player. He made it clear that at 27 years old it was finally time for him to do some growing up. I cannot remember where I saw it, but I thought I had even seen this experience had given him a relationship with Christ, or improved on his existing one.

On the other side of the coin I have read passionate comments left on CNN's site by people who claim they will boycott games with Vick in them, and that he deserves a far worse sentence then the one he is facing. They feel he is guilty of something quite horrific and his crimes are such that he no longer can be trusted to be the leader and role-model that an NFL player of his caliber is expected to be.

The dilemma I am pondering right now is where grace fits into this picture. Let us start with the assumption that Michael Vick truly is speaking from the heart. I want to believe him, and I think that for the sake of argument we can really only start from there. How does grace work in such a situation. I think there are three levels of grace needed in such a situation, the primary, personal grace of the individuals who are directly hurt by his actions, in this case it would be the dogs, and arguably the Falcon's organization, though it is also more of a secondary level, those people who are hurt indirectly by his actions, the community as whole, the society. The final level of grace is that which comes from God.

The first level: Since there is not much to say about the grace coming from the dogs I will look at the Falcons and how they are affected. what does their forgiveness and grace look like? Should they forgive him for his mistakes but ask for his signing bonus back? If the NFL lets him play should they keep his contract or should they break ties with him? What damage has been done to their relationship that cannot be repaired? I think the same questions are asked of each of us in the community. Certainly we have a far less direct interaction with this case than the Falcons do, but even so if the Falcons and the government gave Vick a full pardon and acted as though nothing would have happened, I think we could agree that damage had been done to the community would have taken place. Our trust in a system to be blind to prestige would have been shaken. We do have something at stake in this. We need to see that Vick receives the same sort of treatment as anyone else. So how should we forgive him. Should we forgive his actions but still say he no longer deserves the privelage of playing in the NFL? Should our grace be effected by grace Vick receives from God? If we assume by Vick's comments that Vick has asked God for forgiveness, then our faith would say his sins in this matter are truly forgiven, should this effect the level we forgive him, or rather the way we forgive him. Forgiveness in my mind does not mean a lack of consequences and can require reparations. The more extreme the crime and the harm caused by it the more need there is for grace and that grace to not simply try and ignore what has happened but to seek healing for all sides in the matter.

As I considered this matter, based on Vick's actions I think there is a need for the community as a whole to forgive and move on, if we are willing to trust his word, which I believe we should. If we do not trust him, then we need to work to a point we can, because to simply not trust him ever is more of a failing on our point than on his. To not give him forgiveness is to say that the repentance on his part does not have value for us. It belittles his actions and his words. At the same time I think this issue continues to stir the pot, at least in my head, about what does forgiveness look like. How do we forgive people in a way that is healing for everyone involved and helps the community move on? What does the grace that God look like in people's lives and how are we meant to reflect it here on earth? But these are questions to muse upon at a later time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Singing the songs of our souls

I had the honor, because I believe it is a great honor, to perform a funeral about two weeks ago. The family was connected to one of the churches I serve at, but because of illness and the fact that I only preach at their church every other month or so, I had not actually met them. In preparing the service we attempt to honor the requests of the departed and play the old hymns he loved so much. As I met with the family and talked with them we decided there should be another congregational hymn. The family was not sure what to have and so asked me. Because of his love of gardening I picked "Hymn of Promise" by Natalie Sleeth. It was not an old hymn like the others they had chosen, but it fit beautifully. Over the last several months I have assisted at a number of funerals and heard many of the old favorites over and over again. Each generation has its different old favorites. If I was planning my funeral service today "Hymn of Promise" would be my number one choice. I love songs like "Amazing Grace" and "Great is Thy Faithfulness" but for songs that really speak to me, many of the newer songs come out on top. Each of us has our own songs that speak to our souls. I think it is our job to find ways to sing those songs authentically.

One of the things I really liked from my many different worship experiences when I was at a conference in Kansas City was the way young musicians have managed to reclaim old hymns for a new generation. Not that these hymns have anything wrong with them as they are, but a different sound to them enlivens them for a new audience of listeners. As the pastor of what I think is a legitimate multi-generational worship service, we need to find a way that does music authentic to us. Our worship services needs to find the songs of its own soul. The "worship wars" between "traditional" and "contemporary" are played out in the constant tension of both playing songs which speak to our older members and songs which speak to our younger members. I know for me the theological depth of the hymns speaks more to me than much of the newer praise songs. At the same time, I crave a lively beat over the slower pace of an organ. As Light of the Lakes UMC looks to move forward, and I as I think about what I want in a worship service, I think we need to find what the songs of our own souls are singing and make sure our worship reflects and speaks to our deeper needs. Its different for each congregation, it is different for each individual, but we each need to find those songs that speak to us and sing them, from our souls if not our lips.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Being a "Real" Christian

I am reading and studying Hebrews 11 and 12 in preparation for my sermon this weekend on that passage. For those of you who are not aware, this is thought to be a rhetorical argument to a group of Christians who are struggling with backsliding and complacency. The author of the text makes the argument for continued work and dedication by reciting the history of the faith as a means of encouraging further struggles against adversity and complacency. In particular various martyrs and leaders of the Hebrew faith are exemplified and raised up as people to be admire, individuals almost "too good" for this world. As I prepare to preach this text I worry about part of the message it seems to imply. It seems to glorify suffering on behalf of our faith. These were "real" people of faith because they suffered and died for what they believed. Those of us who live in the post-Christendom society of the United States could only wish we had such opportunity to prove how true our faith is.

There is a part of me that really does wish that Christianity was persecuted. I mean, if only it was a hard to be a Christian then we would only have the "real" Christians. If only things were like they were "back in the day" before Christian became part of the status quo. I think this is appealing to me because it makes Christianity more of an elite group. Suddenly being a Christian "means" something. The appeal becomes not what we believe, but that we are willing to die for what we believe. I see a danger, at least for myself in the morbid glamour of such a belief. Suddenly what becomes important is not what you believe but instead how your beliefs are viewed.

It is not suffering that makes us a "real" Christian. The message of Hebrews is not the only way to avoid backsliding is to have something you are willing to die for. The message of Hebrews, the way to be a real Christian, is to hold onto what you believe in. This may mean dying for your faith, but it also may mean living for your faith. being a real Christian is about believing in God, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, and living our lives in service to those beliefs. If that means practicing our faith underground like some Christians in China today, so be it, if it means attending worship every Sunday like everyone else in our community, so be it, but it means letting our believes be seen in our actions, just as those who ran the race before us, who got us this far.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


On Monday I visited the headwaters of the Mississippi, or as I like to call it, "the little creek that could." I find it fascinating that the mighty Mississippi begins as a narrow shallow creek flowing out of Lake Itasca. One of the many things that I learned on my trip was the sheer quantity of water that flows out of the Mississippi. What was even more striking was how much greater the factor of water flow was at the gulf compared to at the headwaters. The Mississippi struck me as an interesting model for leadership. We often point to one person and talk about all that they have done to make something a success. The same is true with the Mississippi. We give the credit for this great river to something that on its own is little more than a stream. The Missouri river is in fact longer than the Mississippi and neither of this rivers would amount to much without the contributions of numerous major rivers and countless streams which feed into them. What makes the Mississippi so mighty is not what it is on its own, but what it is when it is combined with the efforts of some many others. I am preparing a sermon on Hebrews 12 at the moment and the line "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness ..." seems very fitting to this. What we do in the church is not simply the product of one person, or even one congregation. The works that we do are part of something much larger. Each of our individual contributions is added together to form a mighty Church. It is foolish to fight over what the true headwaters of this church are. What matters is what can be accomplished by combining together, then each of our little streams of faith becomes a mighty river.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A moment of self-analysis

It was brought to my attention recently that I tend to focus on really big issues and rarely if ever come to complete conclusions on these. Part of the reason for that is that I like to simply muse on the big questions, without really expecting to get solid answers. The image that comes to mind for me is that a of prospecting pan; take bits of tiny bits of the big river bottom and sifting through those bits for flecks of gold. The hope is that maybe one of those flecks of gold will lead me to a nugget of wisdom. This is a slow task, and it is one that I enjoy as it lends itself to arm chair philosophy or coffee shop ponderings. At the same time I like the idea of this blog helping to make a difference. I don't want it just to be knowledge for the sake of knowledge, thinking for the sake of thinking. I am setting a new goal, to find something to take away from my thinking at the end of it. I may not always reach that goal, but I hope in time to get better at not just the process of thinking, but also the result of the thinking. The lectionary texts for this week in part focus on the issue with ritual simply for the sake of ritual. The point of ritual is to point to God, to build our relationship with God. Too often in the church we forget this part and get stuck in the ritual, too often in academia we forget that knowledge is meant to point to something greater and obsess over it simply for the sake of it. This entry is a reminder to me to get beyond simply speculation and remember the purpose behind the speculation. I hope it can also be a reminder to get beyond meetings for the sake of meetings, ritual for the sake of ritual, and all the other ways we lose sight of what we are really about. If I learned anything from my week at the School of Congregational Development was the importance of having a vision and letting that guide us. The vision of The United Methodist Church is a good one, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The challenge in this for me is letting that vision guide and motivate what I do, both through this blog, but also through all my other actions in the world

Saturday, August 4, 2007

What is church?

Being at the School of Congregational Development is wonderful. This is a chance for me to soak up lots of ideas in a short span of time and to engage in lengthy, meaningful conversations with all sorts of different clergy. There are lots of issues with The United Methodist Church right now, and with the Church in general as well. Not that these are solvable problems, but is good to be talking about them and having the conversations. The time has also been good for me as a chance to think about the struggles of my own churches and what they are going through.
One of the things I have been thinking about and wrestling with this week is what it means to be a church. The United Methodist Church is looking at launching a new effort to start hundreds of new churches over the next four years. I think this is a wonderful idea. I believe that the Christian faith offers something meaningful and relevant to the issues of today. What I am not sure about is what is means to be a church today. As the denomination looks to set goals around church planting and growth, by necessity it has to define what it means by a church in order to measure it. The challenge I have with this is that I think our understanding of church is changing. Is a network of house churches one church, or thirty? What is the difference between a worshiping faith community and a church. Certainly in the past stained glass windows and buildings, very physical elements have helped define a church for us. We always sing about a church not being a building but being the people.
Which people? John Wesley said that the world was his parish. He did not hold to the ideas that the message of the Gospel should be confined to arbitrary boundaries established by people in the church. Instead he wanted to take the Gospel to anyone who would listen and even to people who would not listen. I think the very of churches that we have today violates this principle. I think we begin to limit our understanding of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. If the message of the Gospel is meant to reach the world, the way that we establish churches today seems to instead create an understanding of us and them. Those of us in this church instead of that one, this denomination instead of that one, or even this faith instead of that one.
With the rise of a digital age and new ways of thinking about things I think it is time for us to get rid of our older understanding of church. I know there are some strong Biblical ties to it, but I like more and more the simple understanding of a faith community. I think this holds better to a sense of what we are trying to create. The language of church has been wrapped up and bogged down in buildings and structures, both physical and bureaucratic. To me the language of faith community is living and breathing in a way that the church is not. A faith community sounds organic and vital, which is how I desperately want the Church to be. The Body of Christ is meant to be alive; I want language that helps to make it so. I am not sure I know where this is all going, but I know my mind is racing, and my fingers are striving to keep up with the pace. I don't know that I have reach an end to this thought, or am at a new beginning, but for now I feel the need to pause at this point, the issues still swirl around me. What does church mean anymore? Who is a part of a church? What does this mean about membership? What does this mean about inclusion in the body of Christ?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Excellence vs. Perfection

The question that keeps bouncing around in my mind as I attend lectures at the School of Congregational Development is what the difference is between excellence and perfection. I remember someone once explaining that an aspect of the baby-boomer mentality and the modern mentality was that is was oriented around just getting everything right, have the perfect, crisp, clean worship service. As I understand it, the post-modern, emerging worship style does not focus as much on perfection in worship but instead focus on making sure the worship service feels real.

How do we understand excellence as it exists both within perfection and outside of perfection? I certainly think that perfection requires a degree of excellence. Does perfection necessarily translate into meaningful excellence? What makes something excellent, and in particular when it comes to worship, how does this relate to perfection? Is perfection simply an expectation of a certain cross-section of our culture and society? The purpose of a lot of the ideas presented at the seminars I am attending seem to focus on making things perfect: we need perfect hospitality, perfect worship, and perfect follow through in order to achieve the excellence we are called to by God. While I will certainly agree that imperfections and mistakes can lead to people being turned away from the church for the wrong reasons. Does it follow though that if we just clean our act up, straighten everything out, and make sure that the worship service runs perfectly that we will see an increase in participation and impact? Is perfection sought by everyone or are there things that are much more important?

I am not sure how to best answers these questions that I am pondering. I cannot decide if my own issues with perfection come simply from my own less-than-perfect tendencies. As anyone who has read many of my posts can tell you, my ability to write is far from perfect. It would be possible to go back, checking each post carefully and make all the necessary changes. My wife in fact is very helpful in this regard, catching some of my more major ones for me. I am not sure the spirit of my blog centers in that perfect. I think a lot of my ideas are based more in imperfections. Does excellence mean remaining true to myself or mean striving for something else?

The more I think about this the more I am drawn to the idea that perfection is only one small part of excellence. I think that excellence is about living the fullest into who God is calling you to be. To try and reduce excellence simply to perfection, or perfect action, begins to remove the element of divine calling from what we are seeking to achieve. Perfection should not be a measure of arbitrary standards, such as grammatical correctness, or a lack of mistakes in the execution of worship and hospitality. Perfection should be a measure of whether or not we are living into God's vision and calling for us. I think perfection can become a false idol to worship, that somehow it will translate into something more than it is. It is easy to either undervalue or overvalue perfection, and I just want to better understand its place in all that is before me.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A New Look at Lost Sheep

So one of my hobbies is disc golf, or Frisbee golf. It is a very similar to regular golf except instead of hitting a ball you are throwing a disc or Frisbee and instead of a hole you are aiming for a basket, but otherwise the concept is the same. In both disc golf and regular golf occasionally you have a bad shot and you lose your disc or ball. As I was tramping through the weeds the other day this triggered in me a new insight into the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus stresses the need to search as much as possible for the sheep. Sometimes when I lose a disc it takes two seconds to find it, sometimes a minute, sometimes five, or even ten, and occasionally I am just forced to admit defeat. If I never looked for discs that were not in the open, or stopped after just looking for one minute I would have lost a lot of discs this year, instead, because of my tireless efforts to find my own discs I have also discovered several lost discs of other golfers. Jesus really is right, if we are not willing to make the tireless effort for one lost sheep soon we will be without a flock. It seems simple enough, but I know that when it comes to disc golf it means a lot of tramping through brush in the heat, and when it comes to real life and lost souls, the work is even greater, but now I have a better appreciate for why it is all worth it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Curling up with the Good Book

Like so many other people this last weekend, I anxiously awaited my copy of the final Harry Potter book and at first opportunity curled up with it and plunged into a whirlwind of reading. Unfortunately, because of the need to share with my wife and the need to sleep before church the next morning I was forced to stop with about 100 pages left to go. While I did manage to finish these very quickly the next morning, it was difficult to leave the book in the midst of the climax. Sleep was hard to come by as my mind raced through all that I had read and pondering what was yet to come.

This experience brought to mind something that Don Miller said in "Blue Like Jazz." He talked about a friend of his and her experience reading through the book of Matthew with cigarettes and chocolate. I am sure a lot of people who go to church would not associate a gospel with cigarettes or perhaps even chocolate, both of these are guilty pleasures, borderline sins. I like the idea though of the Bible being something read the same way we might read another book. How often do we just take the Bible and curl up with it in a big poofy chair? Why not? Do we ever read a Gospel from beginning to end, letting ourselves sink into the story and fully immerse ourselves in Jesus' message?

It is different than Harry Potter in many ways, but I think that it is good to remember the Bible is not just the Good Book, it is a good book.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What does it mean to be a "good Christian?"

A friend of mine told me the other day that she had been told by a co-worker that she was a "good Christian." She said the reason for the remark was her willingness to help out a co-worker during a time of great distress and need. Certainly her actions at the time were those that any Christian would have been proud of. This comment for me however raises the question of what does it mean to be a "good Christian." Is anyone who does a good act a "good Christian?" Taken at face value, the concept of a being a good Christan would seem to be some who does a good job of following Christ. After all, that seems the classic definition of a Christian. I think what I am wondering is whether there is something more to be a good Christian than just being a good person. If we were to follow Kant's Categorical Imperative and only do those things that we would want everyone to do, that would seem to at least be a good way of living, but is that sufficient for being a good Christian.

Is there more required to being a good Christian than simply doing good works. An obvious aspect would be the a belief in Christ. If I am doing good works only for my own benefit, or based on the idea that it is better for the whole community, that is not really enough to be a Christian. Part of being a Christian is doing these things because Christ command us to do them. Now, this does make it harder to judge the difference between a good person and good Christian. Unless we are wiling to take the time to question a person's motives, we cannot judge purely from the good deed whether this is the actions of a good Christian or not. In fact it is probably easier to tell a bad Christian, because we can easily point to a number of things that are wrong, but it is much harder to show that a good act is being done for the right reason.

Even if we could find a way to judge someone as a good Christian or not, I still question the value in such a judgment. Where does salvation do to grace and not works fit into the concept of a good Christian. Is a good Christian one who simply believes in God and tries their best to follow God, rather than a someone who actually does a good job of following? Is the only way to be a good Christian to trust that God and God only will make your actions good?

I think in the end I want being a good Christian to mean more than just doing good acts. At the same time I am aware that none of us can be a good Christian all of the time, our own tendency to sin seems to great. I think a good Christian is someone who realizes this, and yet in spite of that still works tries to follow Christ, knowing they are never going to be that good at it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Human Side of Scripture

I love numbers and theoretical thinking. But yet at some level I think my favorite parts of Scripture are the human parts. While it is interesting to parse out theology from the sayings of Jesus, what speaks to me the most are things like the Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Epistles. I think this is because the human side of things comes through most plainly. While theology is thick in the Book of Job, it comes straight from the mouth of a human in the midst of suffering. Most Psalms cover a range of human emotion. They seek less to carefully define God and more to express an intimate relationship with the Divine. Connecting to that deeper spiritual side is something I love to do, but something I struggle to make real for others. I can teach logic, I can explain complex ideas, but I am not sure something like this can be taught. I think the Psalms are not meant to be read, but are meant to be said. We should cry out loud our needs as we read the Psalms, give thanks to God for being glorious and admit our own failings. While I have a lot of theological blogging topics swirling in my head today, I wanted to just pause for a bit and leave this space as a reflection on the beauty of the intensely personal nature of theology, the core of what I do.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dueling Ideologies

I read somewhere, though I cannot recall where and I am not sure I trust the source, that the Pope had recently taken a step back from ecumenical conversations and restated the position that the Catholic church was really the only correct approach to the Christian faith. Earlier today I heard President Bush talking about the challenge facing our world today. As he saw, the key issue were two different ideologies, represented in his eyes by the U.S. and Al Qaeda.

Both of these perspectives got me to thinking again on the challenging with dueling ideologies. People have been highlighting once again the part of the historic Latin mass which prays for the Jews and their conversion. Certainly based on the tone of the language used it is easy to see how it might be considered anti-semitic, but at the same time, for many Catholics and Evangelicals, without Christ, the Jews are doomed to Hell like anyone else.

I raise these examples not to try and critique them or agree with them, but because I think they raise a major problem facing all of us at present. How do we deal with ideologies that are completely at odds? How do we tolerate the idea that something is both true to some people and false to others? There are some things that seem like we can find a compromise on. For example the endless debate between big government national government and leaving things to the states or private sector has room for compromise. What compromise can there be between some of the ideologies present today. How do we deal with ideas such as Catholicism, Islam, and global warming, that all seem to assert things that are true 100% of the time, that there is no way but Christ, or Allah, or that global warming is fact and not some theory.

I think what we really need to be looking for is new ways to deal with these issues. In the past these have been settled by the sword, or the gun, or just by shouting down the other side. But today we need to find new ways that such radically different ideas can live side by side. We need to find ways to hold in tension that X is both true and false. We need to find some non-combative metaphors for discourse.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Theology of "Evan Almighty"

I went to see the movie "Evan Almighty" with my youth group on Sunday. In almost every way it was a very entertaining and I thought well done movie, but one small theological statement in the movie caught my attention. the basic plot is that Evan, a congressman is tapped by God to build an ark, just like Noah. At one point in one of their conversations God says that everything "he" does is because "he" loves Evan. This statement intrigued me and so I want to break it down for a moment.

My initial reaction to such a statement is concern. After all, a great many evils have been done in the name of love. Even such acts as spousal abuse can be done under its aegis. To say that what God does is done for love while touching on the one hand invokes some poor justifications in my mind. Now, if you accept that God, unlike the abusive spouse is perfect being, then the argument could be made that such concerns, while well founded for humanity, are not applicable when it comes to God.

It also struck me that this statement seemed a bit of a truism. Socrates brings up a similar point in discussing what is holy with Euthyphro. He raises the question of whether something is holy by virtue of being loved by the gods, or is something loved by the gods because it is holy. So is whatever God does an act of love because it is done by God, or does God only do things if they are acts of love?

I think where this becomes challenging to me is understanding God's place in the world. In this movie there is considerable strife between Evan and his wife Joan because even once he tells her what is going on she still struggles to believe and to understand what is going on. Evans actions, which are a direct result of God's commands/requests, seem to cause a great deal of harm. Now, the argument could be made that this harm is temporary and that it leads to the greater good of bringing the family closer together, but that is a whole different post.

Does this theology preach is my underlying question? I have raised a variety of objections, but ultimately does this theology come to the heart of what our faith should be/is that God is good all the time? Following God means that we are willing to make the assertion that what is good is good because God does it. Then again, maybe trusting in God would be easier if I had not been taught to be skeptical and question authority as a child.

As I continue to ponder this I am opening to people's thoughts ...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Preaching to the Choir?

I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago of preaching to a group of 10, I think that includes me and my wife in that count. I have preached to small groups like this before, at nursing homes and even at small services, but something struck me about preaching this time. Part of it was that this preaching experience was coupled with preaching the same sermon and hour before to 150 people. In many ways I felt I gave a far better sermon to the smaller group than the larger one, but what was most striking to me was how it felt to talk about "you" or "some of you" in reference to the congregation. Suddenly you meant something more, like I was actually asking something directly of people. I often want to ask something of people as I preach to them, but this time it was as though I was asking people directly, face to face. I was preaching about the need for us to give first to God and count on God to provide for the rest. Implied in the sermon was the idea that in general we tend to give to God after we first provide for ourselves, something I know I am often guilty of. I wanted to challenge people to change how they thought about giving and work instead on giving to God first and foremost, but when preaching to ten people it felt very different. Suddenly it was as though I was implying that each person in the group needed to change how they were living. I do not know the giving patterns of that group and do not know therefore if the sermon applied to them. I felt a temptation to soften the language of my sermon to this smaller group. The only reason I can give for these feelings was that I felt like I was actually asking something of people directly, like I expected them personally to change because of my message. Oddly enough that would seem to be one of the points of a sermon is to affect change in individuals, but when given the chance for that, I felt uncomfortable. I am still struck by the experience of actually feeling I was asking something of people personally. So my question in all of this that I am musing on, and still pondering, is whether a sermon is meant to be general, providing a topic for thought that people can take or leave as it strikes them, or whether it really is meant to be a call for personal transformation in people's lives. I am not sure yet how I feel about it, but I feel that challenge echoing inside as I reflect upon my weekly messages.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trees of Hope

A little over a month ago Light of the Lakes UMC, the small church I serve at planted a series of trees along the part of its property that borders houses. It was done both in an effort to improve the neighbor, but also in response to the excessive and unintentional logging that occurred when the church was built two years ago. There is something powerful to me about planting those trees, watering some of them, and watching them grow. These trees are here for the future. As we planted them we talked about what the trees would look like twenty years from now when the six year old in the group might be getting married. It was fun to look that far into the future.
The reality of churches in general today, but this church in particular is that the future is very much uncertain. Who can say who will still be a part of the church then, or if the church will even still be around, and if it is if it will still be at its present location. I recently walked along the line of trees we had planted and saw all the new life that is apparent in the bright green shoots of new growth that each pine tree exhibits. It is a powerful statement of hope and faith that we planted these trees. They will not have a noticeable effect for ten or twenty years on the landscape, and the church may not last three, but trusting in God, we plant the trees, symbols of our commitment to the neighborhood, and our faith that God will find ways to keep us growing one way or another.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bless be the tie that binds

The ideas behind this post have been building in my mind for three years. While reading about the 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church I discovered wonderful picture. It was off Bishop Ott picking up the pieces of a broken communion chalice. The chalice had been broken in frustration/protest of a vote that as taken during the conference around the issue of homosexuality. For some reason the image of the broken chalice connects in my head with the image of a broken church. I had the honor of taking a course with Bishop Ott while I was at seminary and the idea of him helping to pick up the broken pieces of the church is particularly fitting.
Anyone who has ever tried to pick up broken glass knows how easy it is to get cut. I think the chance of getting cut is just as great in the church. Homosexuality is not the first issue to divide the church, all the way back to Paul and Peter, there has been a struggle between who we should let be a part of the church and on what terms. The climax of the 2004 General Conference was the a resolution of church unity that came in response to much of the hurt and talk of separation that took place that year. The statement did not try and gloss over the differences in the church but instead focused on the greater value people felt in unity.
How do we stop the pain that occurs around these issues of division? How do we find a way to live into unity in the midst of diversity without hurting someone too much. I felt the tension again this year as the church prepares for another General Conference. How do find a way to end the conflict without more people getting hurt? It is easy to talk about unity and working towards a time of peace, but are we able to do that now? The Presbyterian church is considering legislation during its national session that would call for a end to legislation seeking to change ordination. The hope is that this would but an end to usual struggles around homosexuality and ordination. It is not meant to maintain the status quo, but instead to let people find a way to heal before continuing the conversation.
I see great deal of pain in the church around this issue and wonder if this might be the best thing for all of us. At the same time however I know there are people who are already hurting, pain that is already being caused by people who are being excluded from their call to ministry because of their sexual orientation. No matter what we do, people are being cut on the jagged edges of our broken church. I don't know the answer to all that is at stake in this. The image I am still left with, is of a Bishop, kneeling on the floor, picking up the pieces of a sacred vessel, working to repair or lives, just as God does.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A doorway to God

Today is the second anniversary of the completion of Light of the Lakes UMC. We celebrated this event last Sunday in church. As part of the sermon I used different images of churches I had photographed in France. The three churches I showed were Sacre Couer, Notre Dame, and Sainte Chapelle. I grew up going to Hamline UMC, which while smaller, was built (in the 1920's) in a similar style to the great cathedrals of Europe. Baxter, as a newer, younger, growing community has few examples of older styles of churches, and instead has churches built along much more modern lines. what is perhaps most striking to me is the effect of these different worship spaces. From what I understand, a lot of modern churches are built to make people feel comfortable and at open. Theater style seating and corporate style atriums remind people of other buildings and places they are comfortable going. The cathedrals of hundreds of years ago were built along very different lines. Rather than wanting to make people feel at home, they were meant to convey the majesty of God, to transport one's soul and spirit towards Heaven, to reveal a bit of the Divine to humanity. Do our churches today help give us a sense of the divine? Or do our churches instead become something mundane? In an effort to make people comfortable and at home (important things to do) do we loss something that makes church exceptional, special, something more. I would b e the last person to advocate overly for the sacredness of church. I think that God can, and is experienced all around us. The church is not the place where God lives, nor is it the sole place to experience God, but it must be a place to experience God. I think the challenge today is to make sure that our places of worship help bring a sense of the divine to our everyday lives and help transport people, at least for a moment out of our everyday lives into something extraordinary, into a place of worship.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


The line "it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah" from Jeff Buckley's song "Halleujah" keeps going through my head this week. It reminds me how much I love the Psalms. At first I was always kind of bored by the Psalms, they seemed to just be a bunch of long ways of saying "YAY GOD!" but over the years, and through my educative process at seminary, I have learned to appreciate the subtler nature of them. In particular I like the Psalms of lament, because they contain so much powerful emotion from across the spectrum. Lament Psalms are about praising God, but they come to that praise through pain, agony, and even loss. This speaks to me because while I have rarely truly doubted in God and I am generally optimistic and cheerful, the ability to express grief is important to me. It is easy to praise God when life is great. It is easy to give thanks to God, when we are surrounded with God's bountiful gifts. But to express that same love in the midst of tragedy is so much more powerful to me. A cold and broken hallelujah shows a love for God that goes beyond our temporary condition and understands the more powerful and permanent relationship we have with God. Not based on our happiness at this moment, but based on God's presence and love for us in the midst of all the bad things that happen in life. I only hope my love for God is strong enough to give birth to so powerful an expression of faith as a cold and broken hallelujah.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Pinning Down God

I have had an image in my head of a butterfly pinned to a board in a museum, with tiny labels attached to different parts. For whatever reason that image seems very fitting to me of how I often want to view God. I have a real desire at times to want to pin God down to something and attach labels. If I can do this then I can really isolate what God is, the component parts of divinity. All of this is just a reaction to the struggle with uncertainty in faith. For the last several weeks I have really been living in the midst of that. I am struggling to find an authentic way to express both my sound belief in God and the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds it. I believe the uncertainty that I feel is a good thing, but there is still that desire. A few months ago I was trying to take a picture of a butterfly, but the butterfly refused to land long enough for me to take a good picture. The same is true with God. The more I try to pin God down, the more God flits away. It is theologically frustrating, but aesthetically and emotionally satisfying.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Faithful Questioning

I need a new sort of questioning, rooted not in doubt but in faith. The tendency is place questioning with doubt and certainty with faith. All of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience has taught me that life is not filled with certainty but questions. When I was in school we were always encouraged to ask questions, this was how we were meant to learn, but at the same time, questions often meant acknowledging that we did not understand what was going on. As a vain academic, the questions I was most proud of were the ones that pushed the envelope of learning far beyond what we were meant to have covered in the class. Now this worked for me, I was an intelligent child, capable of understanding many of the more advanced concepts that were being taught, my deep probing questions were good for where I was at in my learning process. At the same time I wonder if I would have had the courage to ask the questions if they were simple and basic ones that everyone else already knew the answer to. I am ashamed to say the answer would probably have been “no.” Academic vanity and pride have always been struggling points for me.

Often contained in the idea of asking questions is the idea that we will get answers. My experience however is that simply or complex, questions often lead to more questions. I remember in 9th grade trying to understand the periodic table of the elements and generating more and more questions about how electrons worked. The reason I share this is I think faith is meant to be the same way. Sometimes I feel we try to simplify faith too much. Rather than trying to probe the complexity of Jesus, we reduce him merely to the Way, the Truth and the Life, or the Trinity to creator, redeemer, and sustainer. Whatever the question, the temptation is to try and find a simply answer which resolves it for us.

What do I do with this as a pastor? How do I help lead people not to answers, but to questions that will give them a better understanding of the complexity of God. I think an atom is a really good way to look at God. The basic understanding of an atom is a ball. Then if you get more complex it is a series of shells (electron levels) surrounding a smaller ball (the nucleus). If you study more however you learn that electrons spin, and rotate and do all sorts of other things, so that simply to see them as shells is not right, and then you add in the uncertainty principle and learn that the shells we previously used to understand the make-up of the atom only tells us where an electron is something like 90% of the time. Is there an uncertainty principle to God? How do I deal with the human needs for answers when I believe we are better living in the questions? How do I transform the grammatical question mark from an expression of extreme doubt or skepticism into an expression of healthy growth? I know many churches that advertise that questions are welcome, the implication is that they will provide answers. I want to be part of a church that helps people with answers find more questions to ask, a church that peels back the various atomic models to find the deeper uncertainty of God that requires a greater expression of faith.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Harry Potter and Insights on God

I am currently leading a discussion group/class on the connections between Harry Potter and scripture. The purpose of the class is to look at possible religious themes in Rowling's work as a way of better understanding our faith. I have done a similar class on the C.S. Lewis' book "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." With Lewis it was easy to compare and contrast between fiction and scripture because the connections were much more obvious. As I have been looking at Harry Potter with a similar goal in mind I have struggle with how to read the characters in Harry Potter. The discussion this week centered in part around the question of whether Harry Potter's encounter with Voldemort as a baby should be read as an Easter narrative or as Christmas. If we are to take it as Easter, then Harry living represents the resurrection and the triumph of Good over Evil, of Christ over Sin. The Christmas connections are just as strong however, since now hope is coming into the world, but what that hope is we are not sure of.
All of this pondering lead me to a remarkable insight. The challenge with any attempt to understand Harry Potter's religious significance is that our information is incomplete. Is Harry Potter meant to be seen as the Christ figure? Or is Dumbledore? I suddenly understand how things must have been for the disciples, crowds, and even the priests during Jesus' time, asking the question "who is this man." How could anyone begin to understand Jesus when his story was not yet done. The miracle of his death and resurrection is something almost too impossible to believe would happen even when you know it did, let alone before hand.
Theoretically the questions with Harry Potter have already been answered, copies of the last book are probably already being edited and polished off and ready to print, the mystery of what happens next is in part resolved; but for those of us who have not yet seen the book, we are left to try and ponder who is Harry Potter, what hope does he bring for Hogwarts, and how does he help us to understand the mystery of a man 2,000 years ago who changed the world with his teachings.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Touching God

I have been pondering the story of Thomas and the resurrected Christ for the last few weeks know. I love the first Sunday after Easter because there are some very powerful stories that we get to read, the road to Emmaus, where where Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread, and the story of Thomas, where he reaches out to touch and believe. Woven into Thomas' story is the idea that believing without touching is an even greater expression of faith. I agree with this, but I also think it is important to remember that each person needs to experience God differently.
I am a person of ideas and thoughts. The concept of God can be made known to me and derived at some level a priori, that is before experience. Other people are much more grounded in their senses. This is not a bad thing, but just a different way of experiencing and learning about the world. I think is important to remember that for many, God cannot be known without experience, without something they can touch, hold, see, or hear. I think the challenge that Thomas gives to us worship leaders and pastors is to remember that in addition to simply talking about, praying about, and singing about God, we need to find ways to make God physically known to people.
Unfortunately, most people will not have the opportunity to touch Jesus, to place their hands in his wounds, and come to know his love and his relationship for us through such a tangible interaction. I do not believe this means all experience of God must be filtered through words, and certainly not simply through worship. But I think we need to find ways to make God real to people.
Worship needs to involve both a mental and a physical interaction with God. My favorite line of liturgy without question, is one that is often spoken during Communion, "taste and see." There is a powerful reminder in those words that when we taste the bread we are tasting God, we are touching God. I guess that is just something I really want to see more of in worship is sounds, sights, and objects that can be experienced as a reminder of God's presence in our lives. I think Thomas speaks to me so much because he reminds us that there is often more to our faith than just hearing it, that it takes something more to make God real in our lives. Each of us in our own way needs to find a way to reach out and touch God.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A new understanding of Grace

One of the things I have struggled with in my faith is grace. For many people grace came to them while they were at the bottom of something, and out of their darkness, the light of grace shone to them. I know people who have turned from drugs, or other destructive lifestyles because of grace. The grace that they experience is real and relevant in their lives. I would not call myself perfect, in fact I am far from perfect, but I am also very optimistic, and so my sins seem minor, and while I believe in God's grace, it has been something I desperately needed, my sins were never too much of a concern. One dichotomy that can be made is between Christ's call to salvation and Christ's call to service. At the extreme ends, the sole purpose of the Gospel is either salvation, or a call to help the least, the last, and the lost. While I would not say that I fall to an extreme, I tend to focus more on the call to service rather than salvation in the Gospel, which again can be traced back to my own mild need for salvation and my upbringing which taught me to help those in need. A few weeks ago I had an insight that helped to change that perspective. One of the texts that I have always struggled with is Matthew 25:40, "what you do unto the least of these, you do unto me." This is Jesus' reminder of how we need to see and treat each person around us as being part of God. One of the things that I have come to realize is how much I fail in this regard. It is not that I ever mistreat, but that I will never be able to do everything I can to help those in need. My sinful nature is not one of positive destructive action, it is like what Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "we will be judged in this century, not by the terrible deeds of the wicked, but by the appalling silence of the good." (I am roughly quoting here) I am not one committing the terrible deeds of the wicked, but often I am part of that appalling silence that does nothing. I am too comfortable in my lifestyle to make the radical changes that a Christ-like life calls for. Just as much as any person living a destructive life of drugs and violence, I am in need of Grace, because without it I have no hope of following Christ. At least for myself I have a better understanding of the balance between what I see as the dual message of the Gospel.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Intraverts and the Great Commission

The Great Commission tells us to "go and make disciples of Jesus Christ in all the world," or at least something very close to that. Even if you do not try and universalize it and believe that you should not rest until you have reached everyone, it is still a daunting command. It becomes even more daunting to an intravert. I was at a conference recently and a fellow pastor was talking about his struggle of knowing how to invite the person he was playing basketball with to church. Now, by this point in the conversation he had already talked with him and found he was attending church a good 30 plus minutes away. For me the challegne would not be the final invitation, but even just beginning the conversation to begin. I also do not think I am alone in my struggles with this. Jeehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and many new churches move door to door, inviting people into a personal relationship with God through their congregation. This certanly works, and I believe that many people have been made disciples of Christ through by this method. I do not think that is works as well for intraverts. No matter how deep and passionate their faith, intraverts do not tend to socialize in that way.
I think that we need a new way that intraverts can participate in the Great Commission. It may just be that evangelism is a slower process for intraverts. We do not help make disciples with the same efficiency as extraverts. The relationships that I develop take time and so I think conversions that I make are much more gradual in nature. The life-changing is done much less by what I say and instead by what I do. Gandhi was an extremely shy and I would argue intraverted person. From what I recall of his biography, he never truly developed a skill for conversation. Though I love his quotes and his writings, I doubt he was very successful as an evangelist for his causes, by his words. His deeds on the other hand speak for themselves. The quiet dignity by which he stood up and resisted the foriegn rule of the British is moving and inspiring. The question for an intravert is perhaps not how do we get better about talking about our faith, but how do we live our faith in a way that others want to talk to us about it. Whether or not that is the right answer, I think intraverts like me need our own way to authentically live out the Great Commission, not pressured by how others do it, but in a way that is honest to who we are and faithful to God.