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.