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.