Monday, December 15, 2008

The Merits of Being a Good Slacker

I believe it was Martin Luther King who said "all that it takes for evil to flourish is for good to do nothing." Yesterday afternoon I really struggled with the whole notion of doing nothing. By the time I got home from church the snow was basically scrapping the bottom of my poor little Prius and it was clear that we would not be going out gain until the plows came through. On the one hand this was perfect, the Vikings were playing a late football game and Marianne and I had been meaning to finish decorating our tree for two weeks. Now we finally had time on Sunday to do everything we needed to do. Yet inspite of this it was hard to escape a feeling of guilt at sitting there and doing nothing. As 5 pm rolled around, the time for our evening worship service, I found myself second guessing myself on calling it off. Rationally it was easy to point to the snow which had only recently paused in its falling, and the rapidly dropping temperatures as good reasons NOT to have worship that evening, but still there was part of me that felt the church should be open, worship should be happening, just in case somebody wanted to come.

I think pastors are one of many people who struggle with doing nothing. I think we struggle with the doing nothing because we have a feeling there is always something we could be doing. Even when we are given meteorogically enforced times of Sabbath it is hard to take them. It may actually be a reason I like things like shovelling. When I shovel I know basically when I am done. It is possible to do a good job and a bad job of shovelling, but generally when you shovel it is clear when you are done and easy to keep working until you are. Being a pastor is one of many jobs that is never really done. Not only is the work constant but there are not even clear business hours to do that work in. I am not complaining, because actually I think I function fine in the environment in general, but for that one challenge, even a slacker like me feels guilty when I am doing nothing.

Maybe that is why God wasted one of the Ten Commandments on Sabbath, because God realized that as simple as it sounds, taking time off was going to be just as hard as not lying, swearing, or covetting what other people have. I guess maybe my resolution for the New Year may just need to be working on taking time off when I get the chance, not feeling guilty about spending a few hours in idleness, enforced externally or personally.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Business models in a church world

One thing I really struggle with in the church is the yin-yang relationship I trend to have with business models. Part of me sees them as good, but in the midst of their goodness I see some thing that is wrong. Other times I look at them and see the bad side, but even then I see the speck of the good. One of the things that I keep thinking about is how helpful it would be to have people with a business mindset helping to work on new models for how we can build sustainable small churches. The reality of small communities is that they cannot always sustain the one-size-fits-all style of churches we tend to encourage in the UMC Discipline and in the general practice of the United Methodist Church. Smaller size is often seen as a negative because it implies a failure to grow and evangelize but for some contexts and styles of ministry it is truly appropriate. If we are willing to accept small churches as valid at their present size, and not simply stress the need for growth we need to look serisouly at how to staff them with the clergy they need to thrive and yet be financial stable. One answer that seems so simple to me is to develop some new models for how churches can function and have a level of economic stabilty, rather than be constantly needing support from the annual conference in order to maintain the pastor they need to continue to thrive. But that is where the yin rears its head in the midst of the yang, or the other way around, I can never remember which one is which. It is easy to say we need new models to give to our local churches but will the local churches accept them. The challenging thing in applying business models to churches is that churches do not have the same purpose as a business, which is to make money. A church needs some sense of financial stability but its underlying purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. When people invest in a congretion they do not do so for monetary return but instead for something else, something emotional and spiritual. Do business models work if financial gain is not the primary benefit? Do business models help when the people applying them have other desires? I want to thinkthat business can teach us a lot about how we can change the church to function better, but then I keep getting hung up on the reality that the church is not a business and does not always function best when run like one.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Challenges of Leading "Contemporary" Worship

Who is to blame, the Chicken or the Egg? Whose fault is it that I find myself lacking good new music for Christmas and particular Advent that works well for a praise band? Is it the fact that deep down we are all traditionalists and do not believe you can do better than Silent Night on Christmas Eve, which I would agree with, and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel during Advent? We have a lot of great traditional music for Advent and Christmas so maybe there is simply not the market for new music for these seasons, even music that fits the instruments and emotions of a new generation. I would argue we have great Easter music too, and yet that does not stop artists from coming up with new ways to sing about the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Christ. In fact without singing about those things lot of newer Christian music would not exist. So maybe it is a theology problem, most new Christian artists have been raised in more conservative evangelical churches that focus much more on the resurrection of Christ than on Christ's life. For this reason they are inspired more by his death and therefore compelled to sing more about that aspect of his ministry. Maybe theology is more the reason for the lack of music than market need/interest.

To add one final question to the puzzle, can good music not only inform, but also help create good theology. Maybe good theology is too loaded a word, but I would argue that a theology of Christ needs to be balance between Christmas and Easter and that Christ was born to more than just die. So if we had bands singing more songs about Christ's birth in the language and style that resonates in evangelical, Easter-oriented churcches would that help to shape their theology in new ways. Even if there is not a need in more main-line traditional churches to redo or attempt to replace some of the classics this time of year, for the sake of theological diversity and growth, do we need more Christmas songs that appeal to the same people who love songs with a more Easter theme to them? What do we fix first, the chicken or the egg? Do we try and change musicans first or the culture? How does a praise and worship service celebrate Christmas?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A false sense of abundance

If there is one thing we are good at here in the U.S. it is making ourselves feel like we have more than we really do. Some of it comes from a strong sense of national pride. This is the United States, since WW II we have been on top of the world, an economic powerhouse of growth and prosperity. Now we are possibly heading into a prolonged recession or a maybe a depression. Where we are in technical terms is less important than the mentality that is out there which is that this is the worst its been in 70 years. While on the one hand there is a lot of gloom in the economic forecast I struggle to feel that this can really be compared to 70 years ago. I was raised with stories from my grandparents about what it was like growing up around that time. The Great Depression created a perception of scarcity and conservation that we do not have today. As I was listening to MPR yesterday I heard someone commenting on one of the shows about the bailout package and how the government had given Citibank all this money and yet now they were dramatically raising their interest rates on credit cards. Their comment was that by raising the rates we were punishing the people who likely needed the money the most. Now I am opposed to predatory lending practices, in particular business that will do the loan until your next paycheck. I find their rates and practices to be exploitive. That being said I also think we need to find a way to make an adjustment here in the U.S. I think we make it too easy for people to simply accrue more debt. We as a culture do not think about what we can afford now, we think about what we can afford later. We also have a higher expectation of what we need to survive. Now, there are a number of people who are in very great need and I do not mean to lessen that. At the same time I see so many people with cell phones and other accessories that are struggling to stay ahead. We create this perception that we need all these things and in doing so only increase the amount we have to spend just to stay afloat. I like having a cell phone and as a pastor I could potentially argue I need it for my job, but I do not think I should hav a cell phone if I am struggling to pay the mortgage. A cell phone is not worth going into debt over, neither is my cable television, my high speed Internet, or many other luxuries I enjoy. This Thanksgiving I think we need to look at our abundance and be truly thankful for what we have but we also need to look at what we have an question whether we should really have it all. Is this perception of abundance worth the debt that we as a society are accruing to have it? I think if we stopped seeing credit cards as a solution we might have a better sense of our current abundance or lack thereof.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Straining the philosophical soup

So I just finish some musings for the Alternative Worship Experience service blog that I also work on. In it I try and examine, roughly the connections between our understandings of Light and Language, in particular as seen in Babel, John, and Pentecost, and the understandings of Light and Language as I remember them from Plato's analogy of the cave. I remember from the seminar I took on Plato in college that there was a school neo-Platonic thinkers that worked to try and integrate the ideas of Plato with Christian thought; building on the hintings of Plato that there was some greater force, some sense of some ultimate power or truth and attempting to connect Plato's sense of the ultimate to God. I also remember my professor at the time stating that he believed that this was not a correct interpretation of what Plato thought. I seem to recall agreeing with my professor at the time, that it was inappropriate to make Plato a monotheist based solely on his writings.

Now that being said, I attempted in my blog to strain the metaphor of Plato and to test it against the metaphor of the Word and the Light that John gives us. While clearly Plato was not a Christian I think a lot of his ideas have something to offer our Christian understanding of the world and even point at the possibility of similar truths. I guess the question I have is: can one take such philosophical writings out of context in such a way and use them to argue truths their original author would not have believed in? Or do we have an obligation as good scholars to only present them in their original context? If we never allow ourselves to stretch old ideas beyond their context how do we ever come up with new ideas and new understandings? And if we do allow such thoughts, what do we open the door up to? How does this effect our understanding of how we read Scripture? Can we stretch Scripture based on new understandings, or are we forced to try and take a strict interpretation that always seeks to root Scripture only in the intents of the original author and never to look at it afresh from our perspective. My fear in only allowing Scripture to say what the original author meant is that we limit Scriptures ability to speak powerfully and prophetically to our time and our place. However if we do allow Scripture to be stretched we open the door for intrepreations such as the one seen during the 1800's where the slavery enforced in Scripture was seen as analgous to the slavery of that time and place and so Scripture became a way of justifying on set of actions. There is an appreciable difference between straining the philosophical thoughts of Plato for whatever meaning we find in them today and straining Scripture looking for the same. No one really claims it is true because Plato said it was true. The truth of Plato comes in how much his ideas resonnate with our own understanding of the world. Scripture however we use to define the world and what is true. We place in it a reverance and value we do not usually subscribe to philsophers, even the really good ones. Scripute is meant to convict us and change us, even when we do not agree with it. Philosophers we do not agree with typically get discarded or at least resevered for intellectual debate, but they do not change the way we behave in the way we let Scripture change us. So there are differences, but still I come back to that question, how do we allow ourselves to re-read philosophers and incorporate their ideas with new ones and how do we allow ourselves to do the same thing with Scripture?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Musins on the Show Me State

One of the interesting events on the recent Presidential election is that for the first time in a while, if ever, Missouri has NOT voted for the winning candidate. As I was watching the returns last week and watching as the vote in Missouri got closer and closer, I wondered if they were once again going to pull it off and back the winner. I started to ponder whether it could be said that as Missouri goes, so goes the nation, or was it more that as the nation went, so went Missouri. Certainly, with almost every other state all ready called by the major networks, it seemed more like the second one, that Missouri was simply following the lead of the majority in moving towards Obama. While Missouri was given a lot of media and political attention in the weeks leading up to the election it was not seen to be as critical as Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania in determining the winner. Still Missouri has been a reliable bellwether for years of which way the winds were blowing, at least until now.

Thinking about Missouri and it status as either the leader or follower made me wonder where we in the church fall in all of this. While I don't think the church should try and determine the next president, I think maybe we should wonder whether we fall into the role of following culture or do we lead it. Do we in the church simply get caught holding our finger to the wind and trying to gauge where things are going, or do we use our potentially prophetic voice to call for change to lead people in a new direction.

There are times that we need to simply follow the flow of culture, because some of what the church has to do is be ready to provide support to our communities and to speak relevantly about things that matter to people in the community. At the same time I think there are times we need to also challenge the ways things are going, to challenge what is happening. I am reminded of the saying of Dom Helder Camara, "if I give food to the poor they call me a saint, if I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist." I believe the church is called to be both saint and communist. We are called to simply the trends of culture and respond to the needs of people where they are at. We are also called to challenge the trends of the culture and look at how to change the direction society is going.

My final thought on all this is: if we really want to change society, we need to change ourselves. I think if we look at the financial crisis we are in it is easy to blame a society that supports greed and encourages personal gain at communial expense, but I think if we closer we will realize that many of the people who helped create the problem were Christians, and if we look at the church we will see the signs of greed and corruption internally as well. If we really want to change the world we need to change ourselves, then we can be a real leader, like the great state of Missouri once was, or maybe still is.

Monday, November 3, 2008

In conclusion, long terms for pastors are better for everyone.

The following is a classic example of why longer appointments for pastors are good for everyone.

I have had the benefit of fencing twice in the last two weeks. On the first occasion I was generally frustrated with how things were going. I was not hitting, I was not able execute the actions I wanted to in the way I expected to. It was not a very rewarding experience. The second time I was "on." I was scoring some very nice touches, I was generally in control of the bouts I fenced and left feeling very good about how everything went.

So what is the difference between these two different events. One argument could be that the failures and frustrations of the first session taught me enough and warmed me up enough to be successful in the second one. There is potentially some validity to this, but I think there is a better answer and I will explain.

On the second occasion I was using my "second string" epee, that is the epee I consider my primary backup. I was doing this because on the first occasion I broke my first choice for an epee. Now this epee has several things wrong with it. I do not like how the tang is bent, that is the way that the blade extends from the handle. A good bend for a tang is slightly to the left and slightly down if you are a right handed fencer. This helps the point angle slightly in on your opponents hand, something I appreciate with my fencing style. Secondly the blade is bent in a slight curve to the right, again away from the way I would like it to be pointing. Usually a blade is only bent down, following the natural flow of the metal. A bend to the side is a manufacturing defect and not easily correctable. Finally the blade is not very flexible, meaning that it does not lend it self to something called a flick shot, where a fencer causes the blade to bend slightly to arc over the guard of an opponents weapon to score a hit on their arm, or even better the top or outside of their hand. So to summarize all the technical details, the blade was far from ideal when it comes to my preferred style of fencing.

Despite all the defects I listed in this weapon, it is a great example of why longer appoints are so much better for pastors and churches. Here is why: while no Bishop would have naturally appointed this weapon to me, and myself, as the congregation would have been inclined to reject such an appointment were it made, it worked out really well for me because the blade did what it was designed to do and did it consistently, for the whole time I fenced with it. The first time I fenced I went through all three of my weapons. The first blade broke, my second blade, described above, lost it's tip, required for scoring, and needed to be fixed. This meant that over the course of five or six bouts I was probably fencing two bouts with each weapon. I was spending most of my time just figuring out what a weapon could do and before I knew it the bout was over. Just as I figured out the particulars of one weapon it would stop working or break and I would be on to the next one. What made me so successful on the second occasion was that while the blade did not lend itself to my primary fencing style, it was there, bout after bout and so I was able to learn what worked, and more importantly what did work as well for the weapon. Knowing what the blade could and could not do I was able to adjust what I did and together we found a style that worked for both of us, and success followed. In fact in the end I was even to coax a couple of touches out of the blade that I had not expected after my first bout.

So this is why we need longer terms for pastors ... because while initially somethings may not seem like a good match, time gives both sides a chance to adjust and that adjustment leads to success. All of this raises a really good question. How in the world does anyone understand anything without fencing analogies to explain things?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?

*Disclaimer, this post has nothing to do with "My Fair Lady" nor does it actually suggest women should be like men, in fact it kinds suggests the opposite, but it seemed like a great title."
I was watching a commercial yesterday during a football game. It was a commercial for I think a high-end SUV, certainly a high-end, sporty type of car. It said that most women decide on a car based upon the cup holders rather and horsepower or leather trim seats or a the beautiful finish. The commercial implied that maybe they should have asked different women. Maybe I am making an assumption but given that this was a commercial during a football game, the real sense I got was that women care about cup holders and men care about things like horsepower. The message of the commercial was that there are women out there who do not fit the cup holder stereotype. I am glad that a commercial acknowledges that there are differences in preference amongst people of the same gender. However I actually kinda wish that more men chose there cars like women, at least if the stereotypes are correct. The location of cup holders is a highly practical question. I have had car with no cup holders, which was really annoying and now I have car with four of them, which is handy even normally I do not have more than one passenger with me. Practicality is a great reason to choose a car. Whether or not a car has fancy leather seats or the highest horse-power imaginable or available seems a lot less important. I do not think we should base so many decisions on the superficial parts of the car and instead should focus more on the practical issues.

Maybe the real question is why are more commercials not targeting the practical things as a good thing. Why don't we see more commercials about where the cup holders are in a car? Why is there an attempt by marketers to make us buy things based on the superficial rather than the real in-depth stuff? Does superficial marketing really work? Or like negative campaign ads it often does not help but with an absence of real information it can seem to be effective. Anyway, I think in the end I am just disgusted that now the push of marketing is to acknowledge the differences between and within genders and yet still push people towards what I would say is the worst of both worlds, the superficial.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Sidebar

So as of last night my plan on what to talk about in my blog this week was to continue to explore my experiences with running the marathon because I feel there are a lot of interesting insights to be gained from it. However late last night and this morning something has come up that has intrigued me even more. Like a lot of Minnesotans, I am a Vikings fan, and so like many others I sat down yesterday to watch the game and this morning I got up, went online and read the Star Tribune to see what the local sportswriters were saying about the game. I tend to find the Strib writers to generally be negative and today proved to be no exception. What was remarkable to me was the level of anger and frustration expressed not just by the writers but by almost everyone who commented online about the articles. This reminded me of something I learned in seminary, it is never really about the color of the carpet. A classic case of church pettiness and in-fighting that often comes up is the examples of when churches have been torn apart about what color to make the new carpet in the sanctuary or if the church even needs a new carpet. What we are taught in serminary is that often conflicts like this are not really about carpets, they are about larger issues that cannot be expressed easily or are deliberately repressed but come out in other ways, such as feuds over colors and patterns.

The level of animousity expressed on the message boards for ever article makes me think that the Vikings are another such example of this. As I mentioned, I watched the game and I cannot say that I was overly impressed with the performance of the players and coaches on the Vikings team. I feel that there were numerous miscues at a variety of levels, however at the end of the game, the Vikings were ahead, they had won. Yes they beat a team by 2 points that had not won all year and was being outscore by about 20 pts in every other game, but they won. What is so striking to me is that immediately following the Vikings game, FOX cut away to another game in progress, and I watched as the previously win-less Rams kicked a last second field goal to beat a theoretically strong Redskins team, a team that is generally considered much better than the Vikings. The Rams, like the Lions have the distinction of having previously lost by on average baout 20 points. So do we as fans of the Vikings have a right to be upset and concerned by our teams poor performance, yes, but should we also be glad that unlike the Redskins we came away with a win, and a share of first place, yes. The aggression and negativity expressed by the "fans" is highlighted even more when in some of the articles there were numerous quotes from players expressing support for their coach and also commenting that the booing and negativity of the fans was far from helpful. Rather than simply be the sign of diehard fans who are sick of having a "sub-par" team, or fair weather fans who are seeing a few too many clouds for their liking, I think there is another cause for all the anger: the economy. At a time where people are losing homes, watching their house values plummet at the same time that stocks do and seeing economic leaders around the world scrambling for answers, it is easy to see why people would be worried. Maybe this really is all about a football team playing well under their potential, but far more likely I think it is that people need a place to vent, a place to express the hurt in their lives, and that football is a safe place to do it. We are powerless to save the stock market, and many people are powerless to even save their own mortgages, but we can log on and vent our anger into cyberspace. After 9/11, people used baseball and football as a way to come together in the midst of grief, now maybe we need to use football and baseball as ways to express our frustration, because venting about a sports team is a lot healthier than bottling it up, drinking it away, or something worse. I am not sure what the church can do to help people with their powerlessness in a time like this, but at very least maybe we can help people remember that deep down it is not about the carpets.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Marathon Thoughts

So I have several different interesting posts I might want to do based on my experiences running the Twin Cities Marathon, four plus hours of running gives you plenty of time to think of things. What I wanted to comment on today was actually my energy level yesterday, the day AFTER the marathon. Sore does not begin to describe how I felt or really how I walked yesterday. Despite how I was feeling and how I was moving when I got back from the Cities yesterday I looked up my times for the marathon and looked over the course. I then began to think about how I could have done things better, trained harder, lost a few more pounds, or just run better during the actual race. After doing this for a bit I got my shoes back on and went out for a somewhat limited two mile run. I did this because one of the things that I had read was that running the day after a marathon is important to help in flushing out a lot of the bad stuff that builds up in the muscles and creates soreness to begin with. While I did not set any world records with my time I was at least out there and moving again. Later in the evening when I was stretching and continuing to think about where I go next with running I realized something, I did the exact same thing with fencing in college. Every other weekend or so I would drive to a tournament, fence until I could not move and then head back to school. Monday morning would dawn and I would limit and hobble to class but by Monday evening I was in the gym fencing again and thinking about what I needed to do to fence better next tournament. The Monday after competition in some ways was the time I was most focused and determined. My question and connection to the church that comes from all of this is why does the same not apply to our faith? I have been a part of some powerful worship services and I know others have commented at times how meaningful or energizing a service was. Do we take that energy with us into Monday? Do we ever take that measure of the Spirit we find on Sunday and use it to fuel our actions on Monday? While I understand how Sunday is easily the climax of a week, especially for clergy, I think we need to work more and more on making Monday, not as a day to drag our feet into work, but a day in which we take the energy and the Spirit we experience on Sunday and use it to make a difference, use it to fuel us in all our work before next weekend and our next powerful experience of God in worship.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pride in my lawn

I never really understood the vanity and attention that some people seemed to pour into their lawns. I also never imagined that I would ever be someone to have that kind of investment in the land surrounding my house. After this last weekend I am beginning to think that this might change. One of the flaws in the new house my wife and I purchased is the fact that instead of having nice lush grass, or really any grass, it was instead a weed covered desert. Yes, I do mean desert as in sand. One of the requirements of our purchase agreement was that we put in a lawn to make the city of Baxter happy. This meant a debate of how to best accomplish this. We talked about sod versus seed and decided that while sod sounded easy it was also really pricey. So instead we bought some seed, ordered some dirt and set to work. With the help of my parents we weeded 12,000 square feet of yard, pulling up anything that might get in the way of the new grass. Then once the dirt had been delivered and spread over the yard we set to work raking it to loosen it up for seed. After going over the entire yard with the rake we then started seeding, first horizontally and then vertically. Once the seed was on the soil it was time to once again go over things with the back of the rake in order to push the seeds into the soil and help them get started on their quest for life. Finally, after going over the yard time and time again, all I have to do now is water it as much as possible. Suddenly I have a great more invested in having a nice green lawn. Because of the effort I have poured into this I really do care about what happens to it. I think in our society we have a tendency to move towards specialization and that means that a lot of us, myself included tend to pay someone else to do jobs then spend the time doing it ourselves. While this does leave us free to do other things it lessens our investment in things. When we look to others for solutions we lose some of our attachment to the results. This is fine for a lot of things, even for lawns, but when it comes to things like ministry, we need it to be hands on, we need to have some attachment to the results. That is why I am really leaning to the notion that my job is not to be a specialist in ministry, but instead an empowerer of others to do ministry, so that all of us can have an attachment to work of God that is being done in the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Who are we to judge

As a political junkie I have been closely following the presidential campaigns of Obama and McCain as well as the primary season before hand. One of the challenging issues this year is the question of what makes something sexist or racist. Historically this has not been a huge issue since almost every major candidate before this year have all looked basically the same (white men). With the recent selection of Sarah Palin as the VP pick for McCain the conversation that started with Clinton and Obama has returned with a passion. Both palin and Obama create the challenging question of how to distinguish legitamate criticism from prejudical criticism. Often the line is a very hard to tell the difference. I would even argue it is possible that legitmate criticisms can be raised for prejudical reasons. I believe it is quite possible to argue that Obama has less experience in government than McCain does and that Palin has less experience in government than Biden does. These assessments are not based around issues of race or gender, but a person's concern in raising them can be more about race and gender than about experience.

I woud admit that there are clear instances of sexism, racism, and even ageism present in the campaign, but I want to focus on the grey area right now. The reaso it fasccinates me is it connects, at least in my mind to a struggle I have as someone seeking to be open-minded and yet also aware that there are times I want to be able to be judgmental. When it comes to religious beliefs I find a real struggle to both be open to the reality that I do not have a complete and certain understanding of God and that others may have different and yet equally valid concepts of God while at the same time wanting to ability to say that some things are just wrong, or perhaps simply less valid. I want to make these judgments not based on some sense of what I believe compared with that which is other, but instead on a more rational, objective evaluation of belief. I want to affirm the value of Islam while still saying that many of the Jihadists are misapplying the teachings of Islam and are wrong in their beliefs.

As I look at these two paragraphs, sip my chai, and try and think what the next logical step in this line of musing is, I find the struggle really coming down to my desire for some hybrid understanding of truth that is neither completely objective nor completely subjective. I greatly value the subjective nature of truth, largely because my experience of most objective truths is taht they are really subjective truths of one person or group of people that thien get forced onto others and so begin to seem objective. At the same time, when it comes to picking a presidential candidate or evaluating a person's beliefs and how their practices match their beliefs I am left wanting an objective understanding of things, even if it is only locally objective. The philosopher in me needs to make a distinction here, when I am talking about objective and subjective truths I am largely connecting them to the ideas of absolute and realitve truths. What I struggle with in all of this what to anchor my objective, absolute evaluative understanding to. Is there any way to say that it is bad if there are logical inconsistencies between a person's faith and their practices? or is that all based on my own understanding that practice is meant to perferctly and logically follow from belief? Is there something wrong with not voting for a woman because you do not believe women are as good as men? Certinaly I find the notion appalling, not backed up by any solid evidence and in fact contradicted on many levels, but who am I to judge?

I have not really gotten any where with all this musing, but I have found the process enjoyable. I was considering spending some time today musing on the start of school, and based on this post I can tell I really do miss school. I miss lingering over a,lunch or dinner at college and picking holes in the universe with my friends until it was time to move on to other things. In a world filled with hunger, pain, poverty, and war it seems silly to spend a quiet morning ponder on largely academic, philosophical, and not really practical questions, but when I think about the gifts that God has given me, this is something I am good at, so I have to believe that somehow God finds some value in it. And yes, that believe is highly subjective to me, but in the end my reality is the one I am most concerned about, just like everyone else.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sometimes it takes more than a spark

So as part of trying something new this year, Light of the Lakes and Park have been offering monthly worship services around the campfire, one Sunday evening a month. This month the theme of the worship service was Pentecost. In order build the spirit and the mood for the worship service we decide to start by reading Acts 2:1-3 and then lighting candles and from those candles lighting the main fire. The idea was to show what those "divided tongues as of fire" could do to start a real blaze, to demonstrate what is alluded to in the hymn "Pass It On" that it really does just take a spark. Unfortunately, while we have been blessed with gorgeous whether every month, there was one flaw last night, it was windy. It maybe took a spark to get the first candle lit, but in order to keep that candle lit and to light others it took far more than just a spark. Eventually the candles were light and then from there the main fire, but it was not the dramatic chain reaction we had in mind when we planned the service. The "tongues of fire" did not just jump from one candle to the next to start a blaze. Instead it required people huddling together, people using their bodies and hands to block the wind, and more than a little help from the trusty propane lighting stick that is a staple of most worship leaders.

It often seems from a far that the Holy Spirit works like a California wild fire, certainly it seems to in other churches. As I was watching the coverage of the Civil Forum at Saddleback I was thinking about how easy Rick Warren makes it look. However, at the same time it made me wonder, how often does the story look more like what our experience last night was like and not the romantization of converting a community? How often does it really involve a lot of huddling against the winds of doubt as we click away trying to maintain that flame of faith in our lives enough to spread it to others? Other people seem to be blessed with a light and spirit in their lives that blazes enough to set alight a whole community, but looking at my own faith, inspite of how strong my belief is, it much more resembles that small lighter, clicking away and working hard to start a blaze in others and fighting a lot of wind to do so. The reality is Pentecost was one awesome event, but the rest of the story is about how hard the Disciples and in turn their disciples worked to keep the fire going through the winds of time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

How do you like your Grace?

So a conversation the other day spurred this question in my head, how do you like the song Amazing Grace? Since I was young, which given my age means since I was a child I have loved Amazing Grace, in my early years it was as song by a good choir, in particular I enjoyed an African-American one, probably because of a special on the song I saw parts of on PBS as a child. By middle school my favorite version of Amazing Grace was one done on the bagpipes, which they had played at Hamline UMC as part of our fall Rally Sunday worship.

Recently my father introduced me to the concept of Amazing Grace, done to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." A good version I have found along those lines is by the Blind Boys of Alabama. At the same time I was given a burned version of the song done by Ani DiFranco. Rather than simply trying to sing the song as written she puts her own unique spin on it, adding her own unique, dare I say angsty flare which gives the lyrics a greater depth of meaning.

What stirred up this question was yet another version of Amazing Grace that we learned at Vacation Bible School this year, which was basically simply a sped up, child-friendly, peppy version, that worked really well, moving from slow and spiritual to up-beat and praise-filled. Last night I heard Amazing Grace sung as part of a story of about grace. This time it was sung with the passion and feeling of a country gospel singer. In my various excursions onto iTunes I have noticed that a wide variety of artists have done their own version of Amazing Grace. Many are simply the attempts of great singers to perform the song as technically perfect as possible. Others take the song and sing it in a way that is natural and authentic to them. Amazing Grace with a twist of Country, a dash of pop, or something in between.

As I think about all these versions of Amazing Grace I love the song all the more because of its versitlity. I have heard different statistics about how times various Beatles songs have been covered or "Stairway to Heaven" (which is best done as a classical music piece), but the beauty of Amazing Grace to me is that it is so simple a song and yet so rich in meaning that all of these different versions have the power to move, the power to speak to us. There is no one way to sing such a song of grace and love, except the way that comes naturally to each of us. So I ask again, how do you like your Grace?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Free Speech and Religion

I recently read an article in the Star Tribune which talked about the controversy surrounding a professor who was producing potentially offensive images. The debate was whether his images were protected by free speech and the concept that with art anything goes, or whether their sacrilegious nature allowed him to be punished creating them. The art in question consisted of a Eucharist wafer that was stabbed with a nail and had scraps of the Qur'an as well as a book by Richard Dawkins. The intent of Professor Meyers was to illustrate that there is nothing that should be held as sacred, neither religious texts and artifacts, nor scientific ones. My question on this is where does Meyers' right to dialogue and his opinions conflict with the beliefs of Muslims and Catholics who feel that the Qur'an and the Host respectively contain the divine and are more than just the empty symbols that Meyers views them as. Personally I am quite torn on this issue. I greatly value the free flow of ideas and believe that we must work hard to allow people to express their opinions, even opinions which seem to run contrary to others or may even be offensive to others. I am well aware that open-minded liberal thinking often becomes highly exclusive when it comes to considering the opinions of fundamentalists. At the same time I feel that Meyers did not do this act as part of a discussion, he did it to create a response, to prove a point. And as myself and other bloggers are proving, he was sucessful in creating a response. I am not sure he really proved a point, though others may disagree with me. I think Meyers' actions are inappropriate because they were not intend as dialogue nor did they respect the views of others. Meyers did not set out to offer his opinion as to why objects are not sacred and that these items were merely symbols. With complete disregard to the views of others, views he was well aware of, he took religious artifacts and desecrated them. I am not sure I want to say his actions should be illegal, because to do so would seem to impose the religion of some over the religion of others. I do believe that we as individuals in this society have a right to be outraged by his actions and that we have the right to desire better forms of conversation. I believe there are better ways for him to freely express his beliefs over and against the beliefs of others. I think really my need to blog on this also just to work through the sorrow I feel at an issue like this. From what I understand there were a great number of people on the Internet encouraging Meyers in his actions, which reminds me how many people are out there who are hurting from things the church has done to them. Unfortunately the inappropriate responses of many Christians who made threats on Meyers and elevated his actions through their own hatred further deepen the rift between Christians and ex/non-Christians. From those of us who want to find a better way, this action by Meyers destroys not only sacred items, it destroys some hope we have in reconciliation sooner rather than later.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Resistance is Futile

I always like to say that my parents raised me right, which meant that one of the things I did growing up was watch Star Trek: the Next Generation. This allowed me to learn about the Borg, a race of aliens who move around the galaxy assimilating other species into their collectives. Their famous line is "resistance is futile, you will be assimilated." In the last couple of weeks I have received a couple of mailings at church inviting me to attend a new seminar, "The Assimilation Seminar: From First Time Guest to Long Time Members." This mailing both reminded me of my old Star Trek days and also disturbed me. I don't like the idea that goal of the church is to assimilate visitors into our church collective. First of all, the Borg at least tried to take the best of all those and so the collective was changed as new people were assimilated in, something that is not really implied in this church assimilation. I also just don't like the notion that conformity is the solution for the church. I think there is a tendency in the church for us to value membership and conformity too much in the church. We want visitors to come into the church but we really want them to leave looking just like us. While I believe that the church as something to offer people, namely a Gospel of love and grace that will change people's lives, I also think we need to realize that visitors have something to offer those of us in the church as well. How do we look at visitors not by what they need from us, but instead by what they offer us. I don't mean what they offer us in terms of "another Sunday school teacher" or "a strong giving unit" or "the next chair of the trustees." I mean what do visitors have to offer us in our faith journeys. How can we learn from visitors in the same way that we want them to learn from us? I guess the kind of assimilation I like is the one where both sides are changed by the other, so that all are bettered by the experience.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Slaves to the Law

One of the lectionary texts for this last week was Romans 6, one of the instances where Paul talks about being a slave to the law and a slave to sin. He contrasts this slavery with an enslavement to God. What I find unfortunate is that we as a society continue to operate as slaves to the law. This can be seen I think in our obsession with lawyers and everything legal. As a society we fall back time and time again to what it says in the rules, rather than seeking the spirit of the law, or to follow a sense of what is right.

Now I can undersatnd there are some challenges in simply asking people to follow what is right, since unless it is defined, say in the laws, what is right remains highly relative and so largely unenforcable. Buti think what I really object to i the fact that we as a society need enforcement. What we lack is trust. Paul encourages people to be slaves to obedience, which he says leads to righteousness. I think he wants us to trust each other and to trust God. What we do not need is additional rules and bylaws to govern how we operate, what we need is a willingness to trust in one another in order to get things done.

Here is I think a good ancedote of what I am talking about. Unfortunately my facts for it are a little bit blurry because some of the information is second hand and I have not been able to independently varify it. From what I understand, a pastor was recently fired from a church for inappropriate use of the Internet but was reinstated after he sued citing the fact that there was no formal policy at the church governing Internet conduct. Now I can understand the desire on the part of a pastor, or anyone really to want to be clear about the expectations they are being held accountable to. But I think there also needs to be some respect for the fact that if a church, or really any employer wants to let a person go, that is their right. The pastor in this instances needs to trust the church, that if what has been done is so terrible to them, policy or no policy, it is time for a separation.

I am not pushing for everyone to vote Bob Barr and get the Libretarians into office, or anything extreme like that. I recognize the need for laws to help in governing a society. However I think Paul reminds us that laws simply lead to penalities and punishment. There are few if any laws on the books designed to reward people for good behavior; laws are meant to restrict bad behavior. On the contrary, trust does reward good behavior and there is much that can be achieved outside the law to reward those who help society.

In the end I just wish people took the Rule of Christ to heart and worked to resolve things individually or in a small group, stopping problems and resolving issues long before they seek legal recourse for their actions. I feel that if we could trust each other, and the government more, than our society would be a lot better off than if we enacted thousands of more laws and hired thousands more police officers to enforce them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Billionaire to Bust

I read a fascinating series of articles on Bill Gates and his transition into "retirement" at Microsoft. Growing up I never had the most favorable opinion. As someone who grew up initially not using an IBM compatible machine, the rise of Microsoft and its seemingly cutthroat practices left we wary of their leader. However I have been impressed in recent years with the passion and zeal that Gates has approached his charitable work with. Reading these articles my respect for him increased. According to, Gates is planning on giving away all about 1% of his money, I assume the bulk of that going to the Gates Foundation. While this was an impressive figure in and of itself, what even more impressed me was that one of the goals of the Gates foundation, was for it to be out of money by the end of the century. Given that they currently have about 100 billion dollars, this is an impressive goal. What attracts me most to this is that the foundation is more concerned with results rather than a legacy. Even minute return rates the foundation could be living off the interest every year. Instead they want to spend the money in calculated ways to solve problems that are facing the world right now, like AIDS and malaria in Africa, or poverty. What I think the Gates understand is that the foundation does not exist to exist, but it exists to create positive change in the world. I think we need to think more like that in church. I know that a number of churches have healthy endowments and I know those endowments can do a great many wonderful things, but I think at times they can instead facilitate one thing and one thing only, the continuation of the church, rather or not it is actually functioning in the world. So the irony as I finish this thought is that this post seems to be about pushing forward at a deliberately unsustainable pace while my last post was about finding a healthy pace to go at. Guess this is why I never claim to have answers for things ...

Monday, June 23, 2008

The New Church Start Marathon

So one of the draw backs, or perhaps upsides of training for a marathon is that it provides a focal point or lens for a lot of my ideas and musings. This post is no exception. So in order to monitor my progress as I am training I carefully log my running times and distances. While this has its benefits it also can create a negative measuring stick to compare myself against, as today revealed to me.
One of the things that I have noticed is that my indoor running times are much better than my outdoor times. One of my theories for this is that the treadmill does a better job of setting a challenging pace than my own willpower and natural stride do. Being aware of this, I set out today to try and run my three mile course outside faster than I usually do. (Not because of I am competitive, just because I wanted to being improving, or something like that anyway) Since the course is roughly a straight-line out and back I can create benchmark times heading out to try and meet going back. As I raced out I was aware of two things, one my times were looking good for making an improvement, and two I was feeling winded and weak. The whole way out I was straining to keep up a good pace and constantly aware of a huge drain on my energy as I ran. When I approached the halfway mark I was a little off of my target time but still in good shape to set a new personal best.
Unfortunately, even as I was turning the corner to head for home it became clear that what I might want was not what my body was going to give me. I made a choice at that point to scale back my speed a bit, searching for a stride and pace that was comfortable to me, regardless of what it did to my time and goal.
As I reflected on this decision I realize that it was actually a better alignment with my real goal in being out running. When I decided to run a marathon my primary goal was to complete it and hopefully not be too much of a hindrance to my older brother who was running it with me. To that end, the goal I had for my running today was to complete three miles. I tried to overwrite my three mile goal with a new goal, to run three plus miles in a pace faster than an 8 minute mile. In striving for this new goal I almost failed in my original goal of running three miles. If I had needed to stop because of burnout after 2 miles, even if my pace had been way under an 8 minute mile I would have still failed in my real goal, which was running 3 miles as part of my marathon training.

Ok, so how does this connect to the church, and in particular new church starts? For the last two years I have been the pastor of a now 12 year old new church start. Started in 1996, Light of the Lakes has been struggling for years to grow much beyond the original membership size of 30. While worship attendance and membership numbers have peaked at various times as high as 60 or 70, the general trend as been to remain around 40-50. As far as new church starts go this is not really considered a success.
Most new church starts have goals of reaching self-sufficiency in only a couple of years, with many abandoning outside funding in the first year of their ministry. Light of the Lakes on the other hand has been recieving support from the Annual Confernece off and on since it began. Without the generous support of the conference, amongst other things, I am sure the doors of the church would not be open today.
As I think about the church, its growth patterns, and my own ministry there over the last two years I see some similarities to my experiences running today. It is easy to set goals for Light of the Lakes with regards to growth that resemble a sprint, growing by leaps and bounds as one might say. However as I think about the relationships I have formed over the last two years and the growth we have seen, slow and steady is a much more apt term for our growth. While we are not going to be setting any records for church growth nor are people banging on our door asking for us to write a book about our success, I think that this slow and steady growth is fitting for Light of the Lakes at this time.
My experience running today has reminded me that there is more than one way to go about meeting our goals, and really no matter what goals we set for growth, or the Annual Conference sets for growth, it is God's goals that matter, and really I believe that God's goals are more about transformation than they are about size. It is tempting and I often try to overwrite God's goals with my own, but as I think about how to make things succeed at Light of the Lakes in the next couple of years, I realize that what we need is a pace and purpose that fits with the natural stride of the church and puts us back on track with where God wants us to go and how God wants us to get there.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Race Against the Machine

So as I sit here in the coffee shop begin to form my thoughts for the blog, I am overhearing the conversation of two ladies at the table next to me. They are talking about their churches and the work they do in them. In particular they seem to be excitedly talking about everything that is happening at their churches. It makes me wonder what my members say when they meet people for coffee. Are they as excited about their church? What more could we do to create those conversations about Park and Light of the Lakes. I think of the hardest things about being a pastor is avoiding envy of other churches. It always seems the pews are fuller, the budget larger, the passion greater on the other side, or at least on some other side. This is not to say that I am not happy with the churches I serve, but one can always find things we would want in a church.

This connects really well with what I had been planning to write about. I am currently in the process of training for the Twin Cities marathon in the fall. Obviously this means I need to do a lot of running and so in order to support me and get in shape herself, my wife is also doing some training, though she is biking instead. To allow her to go faster we have been working out a lot in the exercise room in our apartment. This lets her go her pace on the stationary bike while I go my pace on the treadmill. Working out on a machine is a tough thing for me to do. Normally when I am running I have some sense of the time I have been running and also some idea of where I should be at for that time, so I always am pushing myself a little bit to go faster than the time before. Machines are far worse for me.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how fast I go, I can always set the machine to a higher setting. Having a competitive nature is not always a good thing when it comes to competing against a machine, or as it really works out, against myself. I run and I run and I run, but the harder I run, the more I realize I could be running faster. I think the same is true in the church. We can work and work and work, but no matter what we can always be doing a little bit more. There is almost always a church that is doing something better, that has more people in worship, or more small groups, or whatever. Even if you are the best church in the town, or the city, or the conference, or whatever, more can be done. As listening to the people next to me reminds me, there is always more that can be done. I am so excited about what is happening at Park and Light of the Lakes, but at the same time I know there is always more we can be doing.

I guess the question I am left with is ... should church be competitive in the way that running is competitive, that we are really pushing against the best we could do. Or is even that level of competition bad for the church? Will that holding our selves to a competitive standard result in better ministry, or nothing more than a blaming burnout as we sprint into the ground? Just some thoughts ...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

You Know Your a Feminist When ...

So in a rare bout of energy I am working feverishly to get ahead on my items for Sunday. The final piece of my bulletin, besides announcements is my congregational prayer. On Mother's day I tried to compose a nice prayer for mothers as a fitting tribute for the day. I even subtly changed the language in the text of the Lord's Prayer to read "Our Mother, who art in heaven." When it came time for this Father's Day prayer however I struggled. It was much harder for me to write a prayer about fathers than it was about mothers. Weaving the term "Mother-God" into a prayer felt natural though a bit controversial for my setting but the term "Father-God" while perhaps more appropriate for the setting, is impossible for hands to really even type, let alone lead a prayer around. All of my training for the last 27 years has been around language that represents the concept of God that goes beyond gender and so I struggle with language that while balanced in terms of how I have honored mothers, feels like a step backwards because of the patriarchal images it invokes in my mind. I know there is softer language than "Father-God" but I just struggle with how to pray for fathers without invoking patriarchal language and imagery. I hope in time we can have holistic, positive language that properly represents God, but I wonder if that can ever be done while connecting to either gender without invoking negative and oppressive images at the same time. For now I will just soften my prayer this week and move on ... until next year when these holidays come up again.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Annual Conference musing

Over the past few years the MN Annual Conference has done a lot of things that I have been happy about. This year was no exception to that. However while there was a lot of good that was done this year, there was one area I actually feel like we had a glimpse of greatness and then fell horribly short. One of the big things about Annual Conference/General Conference and really just any meeting is that I want it do something. I do not need measurably results at every meeting, but I want there to be progress made in some form or other. If nothing gets passed or done, but there is great conversation, that is fine by meeting, but if all we do is pass empty petitions and meaningless resolutions, I feel we have let the church down.

This year one of the topics brought before Annual Conference was Fair Trade coffee. Even though I am a non-coffee drinker this is something I am really passionate about. The proposal was to have the coffee provided at Annual Conference be only Fair Trade coffee. I was glad that we were getting ready to do something rather than just talk about things. This was a chance for us to do more than just pass an empty resolution. During the discussion the concern was raised that it may not simply be an issue of cost, but that the convention center where Annual Conference is held may be bound by its vendor contracts and be unable to acquire Fair Trade coffee. One person made the bold proposal that we then not serve coffee next year at Annual Conference ... have a coffee fast. Based on the discussion it was seen to be less a fast from all coffee, but more a push to not provide coffee that was not Fair Trade. I know from my own caffeine quests during Annual Conference there are several excellent coffee shops in walking distance of the convention center, one even has compost-able cups!

Not surprising in a United Methodist meeting, but the idea of not serving coffee was not popular. There was a great deal of concern about the inconvenience this would cause us. Ultimately the coffee fast proposal was removed and the original petition passed. What it lacked however was any real teeth should the convention center simply say it was not willing/able to provide Fair Trade coffee. I know that going without coffee would create an inconvenience of people, just like me having to do without my chai tea would make Annual Conference less fun for me. However I do not believe we can expect to change the world without having some costs, without making some sacrifices. I was sad that we decided the increased cost/work/inconvenience of going without coffee or having to bring in coffee from off-site was too much to ask for to help out workers in Central and South America.

I am excited we in The United Methodist Church as pushing for change and working to make a difference in the world, I just hope in the future we can do a better job of taking some risks and bearing some personal costs to make the world better for everyone.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A long pause

I feel terrible about going a whole month without writing anything ... partially cause I know people still check the blog and so I feel bad for not providing new content, but also because it means there is a huge backlog in my mind of things I have meant to be thinking about but keep putting off until I have the time/space for them. Vacation stacked up against Annual Conference, with a week of frantic work in between certainly makes it hard to get all my thoughts out.

One concept that has been going through my head recently is the similarities of pastors and fire fighters. I am currently in the process of training for a marathon (a whole post in its own write). One day while I was running and listening to my iPod a song came on about the firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center. The song, by Tom Paxton, talks about how these firefighters were rushing up the stairs while everyone else was running down. As I was running to get back into shape, this song reminded me of how much conditioning firefighters must do just to be fit enough to help save other peoples lives. I think pastors need to be in similar shape.

While pastors do not need the same physical conditioning as firefighters, we need a level of spiritual conditioning that rivals them. Like firefighters, I think pastors' lives are a lot of waiting for the bell to go off and us to need to spring into action. We have tasks that keep us busy on a day to day basis, but ultimately we never know when a call will come in that really taxes us. As I work at getting in shape physically it really makes me wonder if I am in enough shape spiritual that I could save a life if needed. I think I could be of help to someone who was maybe in minor distress, but do I have what it takes when something big comes along? To some extent I may never know; until something happens, but I feel like I need to do more to be ready. What am I doing to burn of the spiritual flab as well as the physical stuff? What are you doing to stay in spiritual shape? That is what I get for listening to the Bishop all week before writing this stuff down.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Post #100

According to my blog managing software this is my 100th post for this blog. It has been interesting to record my musing, speculations, and chai-induced thoughts for the 99 posts. It has also been interesting to get feedback from different people in real life about what they read in my blog. I love how blogs create community in ways that extend beyond church walls, city lines, and so on.

Yesterday while listening to the radio I heard an interesting assessment of the struggle between Israel and Palestine. The commentator was asserting that Israel was one of the most successful examples of a group struggling for independence and nationhood while Palestine was one of the least successful. His theory on the subject was that Israel's success came from a willingness to take the small gains that were offered and continue to build towards its goals. Palestine on the other hand has gotten locked up in an all-or-nothing struggle. Often the small gains offered in carefully negotiated compromises have been rejected by the more extreme factions who want it all. So how does this apply to other areas and other struggles? What is more important, success or principles?

Looking at the civil rights struggle of the '50s and '60s, the goal was basically all-or-nothing, bu it was done in a steady systematic fashion. The Montgomery bus boycott did not seek to end all segregation in one fell swoop, but instead to change one small area of injustice. Gradually it moved towards the larger goal. Ultimately the movement was successful, at least at getting rid of legal segregation and discrimination, though the case can be made that they still exist in other forms. Would it have been acceptable to stop short of this goal? If the strategy is to work on small gains, it seems there is a risk that one can hit a point where more progress cannot be made. As Xeno's Paradox points out, if we are constantly moving half-way towards our goal we will never reach it. Are there some issues were partial progress is not acceptable for moral reasons? Would it have been acceptable to only partially eliminate slavery? While compromise is a good thing, are there some times we must fight for everything, no matter the costs? Does the chance of success need to be a factor in the discussion.

Looking again at the issue of slavery, what if freeing the slaves had not been so easy? Certainly right after the fracturing of North and South, it was possible to eliminate slavery in every state that remained in the Union, and even to protect the rights of any escaped slave who made it across the line into the North. However, the majority of slaves would have remained enslaved. If the roles were reversed and the South was more powerful than the North, should the "war to free the slaves" have taken place? Should the freedom of some slaves in the North have been risked in order to free more by going to war? My instinct is that it is important to risk everything to battle injustice, but are there points where it is best to simply remove some injustice for now and wait until the time is right to remove other injustice later? How gradual can change be before it becomes too slow for issues like injustice and oppression? I guess my struggle and the source of all my questions and preponderances on this topic is that my gut instinct is that there are a number of issues around injustice that in the end really are meant to be all-or-nothing, but does this mean that simply seeking partial gains along the way is bad? Is it wrong to settle at times for something less than total justice? How long is too long to wait for change? I cannot find answers in this today, but I want to keep asking the questions and pushing for what are the best ways to work for change in the world.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Membership and the Church

One of the topics being debated at the General Conference of The United Methodist Church this year is the ability for a pastor to define membership. In particular the ability of a pastor to say that a person is not fit to be a member. I just finished a book "The Search to Belong" that talked about how different people belong in different ways. One of the illustrations used was of a woman who identified as a member of the church because she watched the worship services on television. The church may have had strict membership rules, it may have had lax requirements, none of that mattered to the woman, she got her sense of belonging through the connection she shared over television. This story to me speaks to one of the challenges around church membership. Does it matter what we say a member is if that is not what is practiced by those around us?
As I think academically at this I can see a value for the church to work hard to maintain boundaries around membership. I mean, if we are to be a Christian church certainly membership should in part be about a belief/relationship with Christ, shouldn't it? The more I think about it however the more I question whether I can fairly dictate what it mean for someone to belong to the church. Some people find belonging to mean still receiving the newsletter in a nursing home hundreds of miles away. Other people think that it is really about a core commitment to give of our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. I guess I just wonder if we are ever able to legislate the idea of belonging, or if we are better off simply working to enhance the belong of everyone through a variety of ways. Other than for the purpose of quantitative analysis what value is there to counting membership? I think it would be possible to encourage participation and even highly active participation without enforcing standards around "joining" a church.
My closing question is how do we encourage various ways of belonging while still try to appease the structures of the church that ask for a formal status of belong called membership?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Feeding the Root

I was listening to a speaker from the Minnesota DNR talk about trees yesterday and one thing he said struck me as particularly profound for church growth. "Do not fertilize a stressed tree." He described a stressed tree as one that was in a drought, or afflicted with an insect attack, or similar strain on it. The problem with fertilizer is that all it does is force trees to put out more leaf growth. This extra growth does not help the tree, but instead increases the strain on the tree as it forces it to put even more of its scant resources it to extraneous leaf production. From what I can tell it is the equivalent of opening new stores when sales are down.

So how does this all connect to the church? For me the connection arises out of a recent conversation around the pressures of benchmarks in churches. With the budget strain that churches face, and the pressures facing denominations as a whole, there is increased pressure for churches to demonstrate growth, to be able to clearly measure and express the effects they are having. In the midst of a potential church-wide drought, there is a great deal of pressure to show lots of leafy growth in the church. There is a real pressure for a church to pour on the fertilizer in an attempt to create showy numerical growth without seriously addressing the deeper needs. From what I gather, fertilizer will not really help feed and grow the roots. In fact a lot of the deeper growth needed for sustainability in the long term is hurt by extraneous growth for show during hard times.

In a time where benchmarks and measurable growth is needed, how do we in the church attend first to the immeasurable growth that goes on beneath the surface? How do we look first to building our root structure, so that when the rains do fall we are poised and ready to grow? How do we assess the rain levels for the church? How do we know when there is growth out there we are missing and when is it simply a dry season for the church? When it is time to grow within and when is it time to grow without?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Everything in balance

This weekend I was struck by the subtle balance that exists in nature. On Sunday it was difficult, even for someone with my young eyes to easily read the power-point slides during worship. After the service I worked with someone to try and find font combinations, contrast/brightness settings, and other technical changes that would facilitate people's viewing. After many different attempts I was ultimately unable to make a noticeable difference in the readability. The bottom line was that the screen was simply too washed out. We have had to battle a little with washed-out images in the past but this was by far and away the worst it had been. My theory is that it is because of the snow, which led me to a profound appreciation of the balance that exists in nature.

As we move closer and closer to the summer solstice the light from the sun becomes more and more direct, making things appear more and more bright. Usually however, as the sun begins to brighten the snow begins to melt, and a balance of light in the world is maintained. This year however, because of the weather we have gotten, the fourth Sunday of spring was probably the snowiest in the Brainerd/Baxter area. All of the direct rays of the sun we are now getting on this beautiful, sunny, spring days are bouncing off the glistening snow cover and further increase the level of light we have around. Short of shutting out the light there is nothing that we could do to fix the problems with our projection system. Normally nature helps us out, keeping a better balance to the light around us, but not this year. It often seem to take an imbalance for us to really appreciate just how carefully constructed and balanced nature really is. To appreciate all the work that has gone into Creation. All I ask is that next week Nature leave my worship power-point slides alone.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Founding the Church of Jeff Ozanne

The recent controversy around the sermon's of Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, as well as recent studies which show the high percentage of people who switch denominations over the course of one's life raises an interesting question, how much do people need to believe what their pastor, their church, and their denomination believe? The other way of looking at it is how much do the pastor, the church, and the denomination have to believe what I believe. It is obviously impossible for church, pastor, and parishioner to be lock-in-step on every issue. The only way that is going to happen is if we each found our own churches. There needs to be a lower standard than 100% agreement, but what is it? Some people would say that the percentage of agreement is not nearly as important as what people agree on. It would be possible for an fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Muslim to have the same beliefs around the importance of scripture, but what they call scripture is going to be different and that difference alone is enough to make them choose two very different places of worship. I think on the whole people look for people/ideas/experiences like theirs when they choose a place to worship. I just wonder how if there are things that are more important or less important around those issues.

One of the growing trends of the church is the mobility of members. This is not new in the last ten years but is certainly new over the life of the Church. A lot of church growth in the United States is not new people joining the faith, but people switch to new churches or returning to church after years of inactivity. We are not expanding so much moving around within the large tent of the Church. When is the right time to leave a church? Do you leave because the pastor is too liberal or too conservative for your views? What if you agree with the pastor but not the majority of the congregation? Many churches as a whole are asking the question of what to do when the denomination they are a part of makes a choice very different from their own. Do you stay in a church because of what it believes or because of what it is doing? How long do you try and motivate a church to take action before you leave?

When I was in high school my parents left the church we had been going to and joined another United Methodist church. I cannot recall all of their reasons for leaving. I stayed because I had hope that things could change, and I also stayed because ultimately what was more important to me at that point was the community of faith I was in. Though I was involved in the direction of the church and active in trying to make a difference in the church, ultimately what caused me to stay when my parents left was that I wanted to still be a part of that community. I know my parents made the right choice for them, they are at a new church, happy there and being part of exciting ministry efforts. There is obviously not a hard and fast answer, but I think the closest I come up with is the litmus test of ministry. Do you still feel you can do good ministry in the church you are a part of? If you cannot, then it is time to look for something new. I think we sometimes choose the wrong reasons for leaving churches or switching denominations but I think we can stay for the wrong reasons too. I think the church and the Church both need to look at the consumerist culture around membership we are creating and need to work to change that culture to one that is more oriented around calling and ministry. I think we need to look seriously at the importance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in what church we choose to join and stay at. Lots of fun questions and challenges, but I think I will leave them for another day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Mystery of Worship

We are starting something new at Park and Light of the Lakes this week, we are calling it AWE for Alternative Worship Experience. The hope is to create a viable worship alternative to the traditional and contemporary worship services that dominate Brainerd and Baxter. We want to give people a chance to engage in worship with their whole bodies, using all their senses, moving beyond their chairs. Understandably as the lead person at present on this project (I have an awesome team surrounding me) I am rather nervous about how this is all going to work this week. This new service is something we are trying in April just with the two churches so we can see how it works. What was really interesting to me as I worked to drum up enthusiasm for the service was the curiosity that naturally accompanied something new. People were excited to know what we were going to be doing. Maybe this is something that is missing from our worship.

Does curiosity add to the experience of worship? Is mystery something we are missing in our current models of worship? One of the things I was thinking about doing to generate interest in the service was to simple put out a list of all the different things we would need for the service so that people could be wondering how we would use a fish tank in worship? Most of us know what is going to be happening in worship on Sunday morning and I think because of that it is easy for us to fall into a bit of a routine around it. Instead of something that spurs us to knew depths of understanding around God, we simply re-emerse ourselves in the familiar. The United Methodist Church's study on communion described it as a "holy mystery" which I think is a fitting title for communion. How often do we marvel and wonder at the grace imbued in a piece of bread and a sip of juice? Can we worship in a what that is constantly filled with mystery, curiosity, and wonder or do we need something stable and constant in general which creates the contrast? As we move ahead with these new attempts at worship I think this question will continue to be explored. Do we need to have our own constant and familiar to use as a foil, or do the mainstream models of contemporary and traditional services create the necessary backdrop for the new, the different, the mysterious? Will this lead us into a deeper sense of worship or just puzzlement?

If you are curious about what we are doing, we are creating a blog of the experience at

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Swirling Maelstorm of Language

I am currently reading Tim Keel's book, "Intuitive Leadership" and amongst other things he talks about the difference in how different languages are read. The three styles of language he talks about are Chinese, Hebrew/Arabic, and Greek/English. Chinese, as well as other languages of that region have a pictorial value to their language. The symbols used often partially reflect the word they are representing. By contrast Greek and English use completely arbitrary and abstract symbols combined together to make words which only have meaning when we are taught them but often hold little resemblance to the things that refer to. Keel also notes that in Arabic and Hebrew one reads right to left, which apparently requires the use of the right brain instead of the left, and that Hebrew and Arabic do not use vowels, so that part of the act of reading is the filling in of those gaps. The result, Keel argues is that language takes on a greater meaning because of the increased stimulation.

I could go on and on about language, how its meanings are shaped by culture, and so on, but instead I wanted to spend a moment of the question of how we read. Unfortunately because of the format I am using, we are forced to look at this topic through a limited lens but I will still try. The idea that I wanted to talk about was less the question of left to right/right to left/top to bottom, but instead the nonlinear way of speaking and reading. When I go to outline my sermon, I often struggle with seeing a clear line through the swirl of ideas that I usually start from. Some of this is necessary refining to take the often caffeine induced ideas that I start from when preaching. Part of the challenge is that people often make better sense of something when it is done literally, and really the two sermon formats that I was taught were inductive and deductive, so either working from a conclusion and following its progression or working towards a conclusion. The image I have in my mind is something I recall from learning about Jewish Biblical studies, where a text of scripture is placed at the heart and then written around it are the various interpretations of different Rabbis through the years. I like the idea of simply saturating someone with ideas and letting them sort out all of the connections.

I guess my question in all of this is whether it is possible, in the context of a sermon, to have an effective, non-linear conversation. Can one use the swirling nature of language, imagery, and ideas and simply spin out ideas for the congregation allowing them to make the connections. Rather than being a process of moving from or towards a conclusion it becomes the art of creating multiple conclusions, or at least introducing the possibility to go many different ways from the same ideas. I think I am stuck on the question of if there is something to aspire towards, in a sermon that would be a better understanding of God, can you lead people towards a universal end while allowing for multiple paths? I want to hold in tension the desire for some sort of universal aim while respecting the need for different paths to move towards that end. What worries me is whether it is possible to allow people to engage in their own journey, their own quest towards understanding while at the same time actively moving them forward on that journey. I think the hard part is that even the concept of moving forward assumes the understanding of a some sort of goal, which would assume that in order for a pastor to help people forward a pastor must have some sense of what that direction looks like. How do we allow for different paths of truth while still assuming an ultimate sort of truth, even something as simple as a God who is knowable in some form. I feel like there is a compromise out there. I feel like there is a way to have a sermon/message/experience with the Word, that allows for people to access God and learn about God without requiring forgone conclusions or a linear projection towards or from sort of absolute.

I feel that I am largely left with no great conclusions on this, but I hope the swirl of my thought has been interesting to follow and gives you a sense of what is going on in my brain at present.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A brief meditation on light

This is one instance where I wish I had a camera around with me at all times. Last night we did a Tenebrae service at Light of the Lakes where we read through the passion narrative and slowly darkened the church by putting out candles one at a time. While the church did grow gradually darker as the readings continued, a lot of that was do to the sun setting and not because the candles were putting out so much light as to make a huge difference. The change that I really did notice was in the way the candle looked after its flame was extinguished. Because the candles were white against a white background of the altar cloth, once the light was out they blended into the backdrop. I was just struck by the powerful imagery of this, that it really is that light, the light of Christ that helps our lives to stand out for people. These candles were not providing a whole lot of light, but the little light they did provide made all the difference in whether or not you even noticed them. It reminds me of the song "and they'll know we are Christians by our love." How are we preparing to let the Easter light, the light of Christ burn brightly in our lives to help illuminate the darkness, how are we letting that light stand out against the plain backdrop of our lives? Just a few thoughts as we move through the darkness towards Easter's dawn.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Depravity of Humanity

At UMYS, the gathering of United Methodist high school students in Minnesota, I was bombarded at several points by songs and speakers that stressed our total dependence on God. While I would agree that each of us needs God, what I struggled with was the accompanying belief that without God, we are nothing, or really that left to our own devices, humans will tend towards evil and failure. This low view of humanity has been around for a long time. Luther certainly believed in the total depravity of humanity and our great need for grace. Several different branches of the Christian faith today also stress this same depravity and dependency.

Now I should make it clear that I know from my own numerous failings in life that I am far from perfect and certainly in need of God's grace. I guess I want us to have a better sense of God's prevenient grace. I think if we have too low of an opinion of humanity, we are in fact insulting God. I am not big on the whole idea of original sin and its completely destructive effects on our lives. What I struggle with is that God's creation, namely us, could have been so fragile that we could screw it up so bad in one go. When we talk about the depravity of humanity we are talking about the depravity of God's creation. While I believe in need for grace in our lives, I believe that God is already at work in our lives. While we ultimately need God's grace to be saved, we also need to remember that God gave us some gifts already to help in our salvation. To my knowledge Gandhi never really claimed the need for God's grace in his life. I am certain he never accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. At the same time, can we say that he lived a life of total depravity. While I question some of the choices he made, I think he is a great example of what humanity can do. I do not want to undermine the need for grace in our lives, I just think we need to recognize that part of the grace that God gives us is simply innate in who we are. We as humans are capable of making good choices. We are not perfect, but I think like Wesley we need to aspire to perfection, and when we fall short in this life, we can trust in God's grace to help us along.

I think this is more ranting than I wanted it to be. I think that at the moment I am simply struggling for a more positive view of humanity than I often find in Christianity. I feel that we ultimately undermine ourselves by saying we are not capable of anything without God. The sort of negative language we use in our theology would be scorned in regular conversation as being overly negative, and damaging to our sense of self worth. I guess I think it is possible to believe in the greatness of God and yet to see some of that in the ways that God created humanity, to see God's grace already at work in our lives, not something we have to claim before we can be anything at all. The irony in this is that I want to talk tonight about how each of us betrays Christ in our own ways ... maybe I am not so sure what I think after all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bigger is Better?

I was reading the book "Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church" this evening when I had an interesting though. The author of the essay I was reading was contrasting our idea that bigger is better with the powerful nature of small groups, family units, and by extension the "smaller church" (200 or less in worship). One example he had was the idea of Big Schools, which made me think of my own decision to attend Beloit College, a small liberal arts school (graduating class of about 300). During my time at Beloit there at been a real push to move the overall enrollment from about 1100 to 1200, increasing the incoming class from 320 to about 350. While I think there was other spin put on the push, in the end it came down the need/desire of the administration to increase their revenue without increasing the cost of tuition. While I understand the financial needs of the institution and the reality that colleges need at some level to function like businesses, but the more I think about it the more I think there is actually a value in growing smaller. As I think about it the reality is that I think Beloit, and many schools like it would benefit more by shifting their numbers closer to 1000 than 1200, because while there is some advantage in being larger, there is a great deal of benefit in the small intimate style of learning that a lower enrollment can allow. I would be happy, and impressed if the next push I get from my alumni association is not a request for how we can build bigger buildings, but instead how we can help the college grow smaller. At the same time I wonder if really what we as a church need to be doing is not looking at how to create more examples of mega-congregations, but instead should be looking at new ways to sustain smaller churches. Rather than placing all our emphasis on chasing the elusive dream of bigger and better, we should instead be looking at how we can help churches to grow smaller and yet also more numerous. I think what may be a more challenging and yet better goal for the Kin-dom of God is for us to look at how to expand by building out and broadening our base, not by building up the biggest and the best. I think we need to shift the paradigm. The image I will leave this post with is one I have seen outside my window a lot these evening ... huge snow flakes ... but each of these snow flakes is in fact several smaller snow flakes clumped together. Perhaps the ideal mega-congregation is not a Willow Creek, but a connection of tiny parishes connected in a great web of ministry.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Talking the Walk

On Sunday I took a group of church members on a field trip down to the Cities. We visited "The Well" at Centennial UMC and also Solomon's Porch. One of the things that was most striking to the group was th way that both of these congregations talked about the mission work that they were doing. At "The Well" they are raising money to build a well in Africa. At Solomon's Porch different members talked about a mission trip to Central America as well as some work that some of them were doing in Thailand and Southeast Asia. In both cases they were willing to talk about th work that they were doing in the community and the world. The truth of the matter is that all United Methodist Churches help out around the world. It may not be a large amount, monetarily or as a percentage of their budgets, but through paying apportionments to the denomination local churches are taking part in missions. The difference is that we do not talk about it. Or if we do talk about it it tends to be with more of a tone of resentment, more along the lines of how people talk about taxes rather than missions.

In listening to the responses of my members it reinforced the need for churches in general to talk about missions. I do not say this because I think we need to be self-congratulatory or make a big deal about what we are doing. I want us to start talking about missions work because I think we need to help build on the idea that we need to be doing it. Hearing about what other people are doing in missions encourages other people to think about and participate in mission work. If we as a church do not share the stories of the work we are doing in the world then we start to forget how important that work is. By sharing the difference we make in other peoples lives we encourage each other to make a difference.

The culture we create in the church is important. What we talk about effects what kind of a church we are going to be. In most churches we seem to spend most of our announcements talking about meetings and social events. The end result is that most churches are about meetings and social events. Instead if we started talking about missions and ministry, maybe the church would be more about missions and more about ministry. In the end I think walking the walk is important, but if we don't talk it as well, then we are not going to have others join us on it. The task of discipleship, as I see it is to both walk it and talk it. And now I am done talking.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gender and Politics

I heard a comment on NPR from an old union worker in Ohio who had always vowed to never vote for a woman. He then went on to say that he voted for Clinton in the recent primary there because she had shown she was a fighter. While I am glad that this gentleman overcame his prejudice and realized that individuals of both genders have things to offer when it comes to politics, however; I am also concerned at what seems to be an underlying message of his statement. I guess what worries me is that he voted for Clinton, not because he realized that women are people too, but that Clinton did not fit into his stereotypes and so she was therefore acceptable.

I am not sure how to best express my thoughts on this without also falling into the trap of stereotypes around gender, so I will try and tread lightly. What strikes me in this man's statement and the sentiment behind it and by others like it, is the idea that men are the fighters, the hunters,the aggressive ones. Women on the other hand are talkers, compromisers, "soft" for lack of a better word. What worries me is that it seems the only way for women to get respect is to prove that they are not soft, that they can be fighters like the men. I think this is an important realization because I know a number of women, and I would probably include Clinton in that group who are fighters just like the men. My problem is that I wish that was not the only way to achieve respect. I wish what this Ohio man had realized was that there was something to be valued in people who are not fighters. Is it possible to hold a position of power and responsibility without being a fighter?

My own nonviolent tendencies and values would like to believe that it is possible for someone to acquire a position of power without the combative attributes that we tend to associate with people in power. I do not think I have the ability to parse out and breakdown every part of this hope of mine, but I would like to push forward the idea that the stereotypes associated with women ... community oriented, willing to compromise, etc which are in turn are perceived weaknesses in men, are something that needs to be valued more in this society. I am not saying that this is something that Senator Clinton needs to aspire to, I would like her to be authentic to who she is, whether that is someone who is a fighter, or compromiser. I just want society to consider the idea that not only is more than one gender capable of providing leadership to our country but that there is also more than one way of providing that leadership, and in particular some effective ways of being a leader do not fit neatly into the typical stereotypes of what it is to be a man.

I hope I spelled that all out correctly. I just wish we could find new ways of looking at things beyond the gendered stereotypes about people, power, and politics.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An unexpected windfall of/for change

Recently the government united on something, that the way to help our struggling economy and the desperate times we find ourself in as a country was to give everyone money. Well as it turned out it was not everyone everyone, but still the government felt it necessary to give out rebate checks to something like 100 million households. When I first heard about this potential windfall heading my way, like most people, I started to think about all the good I could do with this money ... for myself. Some of my ideas were clearly self-serving, like getting some piece of cool new technology, but others had some greater value, like paying off some of my loans from seminary. When I thought about this some more I thought about how this could be a way to help my church out. If I gave this money to my church think about how that would help it out financially. As tempting as that was, I also realized that this money could really make a difference given to some of the many struggling charities that are bearing the brunt of the collapsing economy. Places that are struggle to meet the needs of hardworking people who just need a little more help getting by.

Out of my reflections on those topics I am starting a campaign in my congregation and I am hoping that it is something other people considering embracing, and that is using this "change" that the government is giving us to really work to change things. At Light of the Lakes we will be asking people to pledge some or even all of their government rebates to help with projects around the church or to go towards helping charities in the community. Our congregation is not that large, only 47 members, but if I did the math correctly as a group we will be getting over 20,000 from the government. That is a lot of money to make a difference with. If my math sills are to be trusted, probably some 3 million of the households receiving these rebates will be United Methodist. Which conservative would mean easily over 2 billion dollars that United Methodists could be using to make a difference in their communities. It will not buy a solution to all of the problems of the world, but it would help to show that we as Christians are committed to something greater than ourselves. It would help to reject the consumerism that captivates our nation and our world. With every major presidential candidate talking about how they are the best agent for change, I think we as Christians can demonstrate that in fact, we too can be agents of positive change in the world. Unlike the candidates, we do not need to win in order to change, all we need to do is lose our own selfish desires and let that change start to happen.