Thursday, November 5, 2009

Election Day tribute?

While it is perhaps a couple of days delayed I wanted to take a moment to reflect on our practice of elections in the United States. First of all, this year we are given a powerful reminder, that despite issues and concerns, Florida in 2000, Ohio 2004, Minnesota senate race in 2008, we have a strong election system. Looking at the challenges that places like Afghanistan face in holding their elections and keeping them fair, I think we have a lot as a country to celebrate. I am a huge fan of democracy and all that it does to help all of us.

That being said, on the eve of election night I feel like I saw a "still better way" to quote Paul. As a part of the Long Range Planning process at Park, the committee was asked to help select a track, or direction for our church to take. The conversation was started by everyone placing their vote or preference and then we tallied the votes. Of the 41 cast, the leading track had 18, while the others had 11, 11, and 1 respectively. While not a full majority, since everyone could cast two votes, it was reasonable to assume that of the 21 people voting, a majority cast at least one of their votes for this direction. In our election system that would seem to imply a win and time to move on. One of the values we have as a part of the process is the consensus model which means while the vote told us how people were feeling in GENERAL we also care what people are feeling SPECIFICALLY. The question was then asked of everyone in the group is this a track that you can get behind. The question was not, did you vote for it, or was it your first, or even second choice but instead, can you get behind this track. Obviously if it was your first choice that would be a yes, but even if it was your last choice you could still look at it and say "yes, I can live with that." This is not the first time I have worked with a consensus model but it reminds me of a key difference that exists between it and our current political process: on a national level everything is about winning.

If you are like me, at some point you have gone to the polls and voted for someone, but really what you probably wanted to do was to vote against the other person. You may have agreed with the person your were voting for, but your real issues was what the other person stood for. Unfortunately our political system is based not on what is best for EVERYONE but instead what is best for a majority, or even simply what is best for a majority of those who actually vote. Ironically I think our country was founded as a democracy but with specific measures put in place not support majority rule, but to protect minority rule from it. As it was explained to me, one of the reasons for the Free of Religion clause in the Constitution was because most denominations were worried about what would happen if someone else got the majority. Europe had been torn about with religious wars based around majority rule, the US, which actually had a clear system of determining it, wanted to prevent that from happening.

What would it look like if we had a more consensus model of elections? What if our politicians were worried not about what is best for some people but what is best for all people. Are we even geared to think that way anymore? Everyone can think about what they do not like and block that from happening, suddenly there would be tax cuts for everyone, since no one would want to raise their own taxes, but is that really the solution? I am not saying our current tax code is fair or good for everyone BUT I can also say that while no tax code would be fair it would not be good, since if we want government we kinda need to support it somehow. It challenges all of us to think beyond what we want in the moment to what is really important for all of us.

So once again, I love our country, I love the right to vote, but I sometimes wonder if maybe we need to rethink what we are voting for ... or who else is affected by our vote.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The real value of money

I am reading an interesting book at the moment called "More Sex is Safer Sex: the Unconventional Wisdom of Economics" by Steven Landsburg. Landsburg looks at a variety of different statistical situations or dilemmas and examines the economical side of them, often then offering his own take on the cost/benefit analysis and what that means the "right" answer is. It is an interesting read for a couple of reasons: one he occasionally gets sidetracked onto his own issues and beliefs (fairly conservative with a strong belief in a lack of government involvement) but also because he presents some intriguing arguments into why some people should be having more sex, or why Scrouge before he gives his money away is helping more people than after he gives it away. For someone like me with little economic background I end up mostly having to trust his economic arguments because I do not have the expertise to refute him. It is good to occasionally be forced to trust what other people are saying reather than consistently trying to assert your own opinion. I also think it is a good exercise to look for flaws based on what another person thinks and not refute them simply by saying what you think instead.

It raises an interesting question to me though ... does money really determine the value of things as much as we think it does. Landsburg is seemingly aware of outside values ... he points to the fact that a person has a child inspite of all the negative economic effects of it and in fact rejoices in the birth of the baby. He is also aware that people marry for more reasons that simply economic gain or beauty of the potential partner. I think he struggles how to fully quantify that for his analysis. For the child he is simple ignores it, focusing instead on the cost/benefit to the rest of the community, assuming that the parent is already coming out ahead. But is money really the best measure of value? Or maybe the real question are there some moral absolutes that are more superceding the econmic value of something.

One argument that Landsburg looks at is child labor in third world countries. He seems to make the point that child labor is helping the families, that no one would willing subject their child to such work unless it was the only way to make enough for the family. He feels that those of us in the first world can afford luxuries like not having our children work, but that even in our own past it was necessary for children to work, and work a lot to make enough to thrive. By prohibiting child labor we are actually further impoverishing these countries by further limiting their means of production and thus ability to get richer, like we got richer. He points to the fact as wealth increases, child labor decreases, and seems to feel this will be a self-correcting system. I mean, the arugment could be made and in some ways has been made that slavery was a response of the south to remain economically competitive with the north during th 1850s, was it wrong of people to say that work should not be done by slaves? Is it possible to take some ethical values and impoes them on an economic system, for some of us to say we do not believe such a practice is moral right and we are not willing to be a part of it. Now, Landsburg is right that if we take such a stance we need to be aware of its effects ... if we are decreasing the potential of a country in some ways maybe there are other ways we need to work to improve it. At the same time, that does not mean we should feel that a simply economic analysis tells the whole story.

What I love about Landsburg's book is that he challenges me to think and pushes me with some hard "facts" that in the end remind me, my faith is not about facts, or simply things we can measure in real world dollars or units, it is tied to something greater, it is connected to a God that goes beyond money to offer us something of real value. We as Christians are challenged to look at the world as it is, and decide what ways our faith calls us to act differently, or live differently, regardless of what the economic pressures tell us.

Monday, October 12, 2009

There is a season ...

It is October 12th and I am sitting in a coffee shop watching large fluffy white flakes of snow fall on the ground. It is a beautiful picturesque scene ... other than the date on the calendar. I know from living in Minnesota most of my life that getting snow snow in October is not out of line. What is surprising to me is that the snow falling now is not the first snow. In fact it is landing in places on existing snow. We got our first snow on Friday night and somehow it is still around. I love snow, probably leftover from not making enough snow forts as a kid. Even now that snow is more of a hassle for driving and shoveling than it is something I play in I still enjoy the beauty it adds to the world. By the same token I love the cold, I find it invigorating and refreshing. Maybe my competitive nature enjoys something that challenges me, who knows, the bottom line colder whether just forces me to think harder about whether or not I should be going outside barefoot, or maybe it is time to retire the sandals for a bit. In the end I really just like winter.

So I find it odd that I am sitting here, in the middle of October loving the snow that is coming down but also feeling very much like now is not the time. I really feel like we missed the fall up here. Some of it was that I was gone for a week to the South and while I was gone the temp went from the 70s to the 50s and now into the 30s and 40s. Even adding that week into the occasion we really did not have a fall around here. Trees still have their leaves, many of them have not even fully turned yet. As much as I love the weather that winter brings, even I think there is a time for everything, and I am struggling to feel like now is the time for snow, now is the time for winter to start. I think we all need our rhythms, Ecclesiastes really does understand it, there is a time for everything. I guess my question is whether now is really the time for snow.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I was able to travel to South Carolina last week for a much needed vacation. It was also the kind of vacation I needed, one with few schedules or expectations, but instead filled with rest and relaxation. It was a good time with family in a beautiful rented condo by the ocean.

While there were a lot of things to enjoy during the week, perhaps one of the ones I enjoyed most was swimming in the ocean. In particular on our last day there the waves were finally reaching a decent height. Having little experience with the ocean I have not sense of what is normal or not, but I do know that I enjoy more waves to less, and these waves where finally getting to a size that was appealing to me. As the waves grew in size they began to provide a humbling reminder to me. Between my height and weight, I am a big guy, but those waves reminded me of something, in the grand scheme of things I am rather little.

The lectionary text for the month is Job, and I am reminded of God, speaking to Job from the whirlwind, reminded Job just how human he is, and just what that means in the grand scheme of creation. I think it is easy to forget this. To get the South Carolina I flew in a plane that soared through the sky at close to 500 mph. I saw an aircraft carrier and a submarine, reminders of how we seek to be masters of land, sea, and sky. We can do so much as humans that it is easy to lose our place, lose our perspective. Standing in the ocean, being pushed around by the never ending line of waves, I was reminded just how small we all are. For someone like me that was a good thing, it is good to remember our place in the world, one of God's children, but just one, and just a child of God.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Modern Day Morality

I remember seeing disclaimers on books that informed me that if the book had been sold without its cover that it was a pirated book and the author and publisher had not received a share of the profits. I never saw a pirated book and so I always have wondered how prolific the pirated book trade really is, outside of college campuses where the work is done with copiers and not the actual book. Still the image of a torn book helps make it fairly revealing that the book is stolen, a violated product.

The same is not true with so many stolen items today, but in particular I am thinking of online products. Computer piracy is so prevalent that the lines get blurred on what is and is not stolen, what is and is not illegal. I do not know what all the rules are for burning tracks from a CD onto a computer, when it is legal and when it is illegal, etc. Even if I did it is harder to see it as a bad thing. We do not have the torn and tattered book to remind us that the song we are listening to was gained without proper compensation. We have no tangible reminder of the damage that is caused to others. I think on the primary reasons for computer piracy is that the seemingly victimless nature of the crimes. It is hard to see how a pirated version of Windows hurts anyone, except Microsoft, and they are some big "evil" corporation. The "evil" helps to further justify the action. Or so what if some millionaire singer does not get their royalties because of the song I illegally download.

Is there a decline the morality of our nation today, or are the temptations and grey areas just more obvious than they were in the past? Is the danger of the Internet generation that separation makes it hard to remember there are people at the other end of things. Stab a person you can feel them there, shoot them you can see their face, lob a missile at them and you may not even know they are there. Grab someone's purse and you can feel their resistance, rob a store at night and you likely know the person you are stealing from, even if it was just while casing the place, hack into someone's bank account online and you likely only know their name so you can use it to further the theft. Each step away makes the victim seem less real. In our Internet age we forget about the people around them, we objectify them, and suddenly morlaity is less defined.

In the end I tend to be a relativist when it comes to morality. I know what I value as right and wrong, but I know that at least some of those values are really a personal choice and not somehting I would feel everyone has to value in the same way. At the same time I think people do need to employ a certain broarder nature to their ethics. One of Kant's principles for ethics was that any ethical stance needed to be one that a person would want universalized. So if it is ok for me to pirate stuff from Microsoft than it is ok for others to pirate my work and not pay for it. Should I publish a book at some point I would then be fine if some people copied it and I did not recieve royalties. I should be ok with the logical consequences of my actions.

I do not know if the world is truly worse than it was years ago, but I do know this, the world today would be better if we all had a better sense of ethics. The world would be better if we thought not just about what is right and good for us, but what we would want if we were on the other side of things. The world would be better if we remember the divine spark within us all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ignorance is (not) Bliss

The first assignment I had as a soon-to-be philosophy major at Beloit was to write an essay. The question posed was whether it was better to be ignorant and happy or wise and sad. I went with ignorant and happy, because in the end, wisdom should lead towards happiness as well. If knowledge does not lead towards happiness, then it loses some of its value, at least to me. By the same token, ignorance that leaves us unhappy is bad.

Recently my wife and I took a group of youth down to the Twin Cities to work at the Fair, go to the zoo, and shop at the Mall. The less exciting part of the trip was heading to Hamline University to use their showers. What we had neglected to mention to people, or have people plan for was that the showers not private stalls. All of the youth were wonderfully mature and handled it well. Afterwards my wife and I were talking about it, and both of us realized that we assumed that showering under such circumstances was easier for teens of the opposite gender. Neither of us had solid reasons we could point to, but both of us, in our ignorance assumed that the awkwardness that we remembered and encountered was somehow less for the other side.

I find this to be a great example of how our ignorance did not create bliss, but in fact probably only worsened things. When it comes to things like, shame, one of the main things that feeds it is the assumption that we are less for feeling it. If we all have the assumption that we are the only ones feeling awkward about something, like showering in a public locker room, then we further deepen our shame, making things all the worse.

I do not have a grand solution to the showering dilema, but I do think it raises some good questions for all of us. How many people struggle and suffer in silence on other things, believing themselves to be the only person who struggles with such problems. If we did not focus so much on our precieved weakness compared to others, maybe who would realize just how strong we really are. If only we got past our ignorance, had the courage to share with each othter, we would all realize how weak we all are, and by extension just how strong each of us truly is.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Right Mindfulness

I cannot recall of the top of my head whether Right Mindfulness is a term I picked up from reading the Tao of Pooh or from Buddhism classes in college, but it seems like a particularly striking notion to me now. Not because I am finding myself in the right frame of mind, but because I am reminded time and time again that it is important. One of the great challenges of church planting ... I think more than simply being the pastor of a more established congregation is the day to day waves that shift and challenge my perspectives, my right mindfulness. One day I will feel like I am riding high, things are going well and the next I will find myself mired in the midst of challenges, faced with the overwhelming knowledge of everything that is still to be done. The challenge seems to be that everything in church planting is so fluid, or at least it feels that way. I am reminded of the line from a hymn "on Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand." While I try to live that out in some ways I feel Christ is not the rock on which I stand, but the lighthouse that I orient myself towards in the midst of a storm. Though the waves go up and down, I face towards Christ ... that is the right mindfulness that I seek.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cleaning House

When I was a kid I was terrible at doing my chores around the house ...
ok ... full disclosure, I am still terrible about doing my chores around the house. When company is coming, or my wife is coming home from a long trip I can find the drive and the energy to get the work done, but day to day stuff is not my strong suit. When I was a kid though I never minded helping clean other places, whether it was doing stuff at school or at a friend's house.

I feel like we see the same thing when it comes to church work. People will drive hundreds of miles to do a mission trip but will not want to help people in their own backyards. Every year Park UMC struggles to get their members to work at their booth at the Crow Wing County Fair. Every year Hamline UMC struggles to get member to work at the MN State Fair. However without really trying my wife and have managed to find 20+ youth from Light of the Lakes and Grace, two smaller churches who are willing to go to the Cities to help out.

I guess it makes sense ... no one likes to do the work they HAVE to do ... we like the freedom to choose what we do, even it is the same kind of work we resist doing. I suppose this is why the maverick heros are so popular. Maybe this is why so many people struggle with faith. One of the key steps in the 12 step program is accepting a higher power. An implication to that can mean accepting that there are things we have to do because of that higher power. A relationship with God seems to imply things we have to do. What we really need to do is find a relationship filled with things we want to do. We need to remind people that a relationship with God is not about subservance but joyful service. Now if only I could think joyful about the dishes at home with my name on them or the jungle ... I mean lawn that surrounds my house.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Starting a new appointment

Before anyone who reads this gets confused, no, I am not being reappointed, it just feels like it. Right now I am stuck in the middle of changing two jobs at once. My role at Light of the Lakes has been switching from pastor to church planter. With this switch suddenly my hours are less concerned with sermon and worship prep and instead are focused on how I can reach out and meet new people and working with my launch team to make things happen. Basically one of the main goals to get out of the office and out of my comfort zone and to do more things in the community. Unfortunately that is running counter with my other "new" appointment, which is the temporary "sole" pastor at Park. With Rory on sabbatical in Australia I get the joy of providing the pastor care and limited leadership for all of Park's members. This means I also have increased pressure to be in the office at the same time, since that is a great way to keep a pulse on the congregation. All of this combines to really feel in some ways like a new appointment. I am having to rethink how I structure my work week. I am learning and being reminded of different things I need to make sure get done and I am taking on a whole host of new responsibilities. The bonus though is that I don't have to move to get all of this. It reminds me of those first few days a year ago when I sat in the office and tried to figure out what in the world I was supposed to be doing as a pastor. Three years later the feeling is still the same. It is kinda nice that ministry remains fresh, new and interesting.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I had the chance on my recent vacation to see New York City. This was my first time seeing the Big Apple and was excited to see what all the fuss was about. Having lived in Chicago for a couple of years I was not exactly a small town kid coming to the big city for the first time. Still even my experiences in Chicago did not fully prepare me for the mass of humanity that is NYC.

I think the thing I struggle with in NY is really the lack of private space, the notion that almost everyone shares some space with someone else, often a lot of someones. Having spent most of my life in a quiet suburb I am not used to having to share so much space. The fact that cost of living forces people into tiny spaces and economic realities emphasize the importance of sharing that space is just foreign to me.

Not only is living space shared, but so to is open space. Central Park becomes the space to get away from cramped living conditions, as long as you are willing to share it with thousands of other people. What is most unnerving to me about all of this is the way it leads to dehumanizing those around us. I walk around Brainerd/Baxter and expect to met someone I know. With so many people around in NY you begin to not care who is around. It is hard to care about and give care to people in need because you see so many. The result seems not to be to help open our eyes to the needs of those around us, but in fact force us to close our eyes, because we just get used to it.

I only have my limited experiences living in Chicago, the Twin Cities, and visiting NYC, but I wonder if the number of people around us changes how we think about people. Do we have a limited capacity to care? Are we limited in how many people we can recognize as individuals and not just another person, part of the mass of humanity and so ironically less human to us? Is the benefit of a small community not just the quieter way of life but the benefit that we can keep seeing people as people. We have the space to be ourselves and to let other people be themselves and see everyone around us as being human.

Just my musings for the moment.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The point of debate

Garrison Keeler, in "A Prairie Home Companion" jokingly talked about a Lutheran Synod meeting where people stood up and said the same things they had been saying to each other for 15 years and neither side changing their minds. Today I read in Star Tribune that often appeals courts, such as the Minnesota Supreme Court have often made up their minds on cases based on the briefs put before them before oral arguments begin and that oral arguments often do little to change people's minds about things. This certainly resonates with my own experiences of debates in student government and also my own personal experiences in matters of faith I have been involved in where it rarely mattered what was said since both sides had already dug in on their side of the issue.

So the question that I am musing on today is, if debate does not seem to really make a difference, why do we value it so much? Why do we spend so much time in structured arguments if they so rarely result in a change in opinion. Is it all about posturing for the future? Do we just hold out the hope that hearts/minds will change? Or is it just important that everyone have the chance to have their say, even if it likely won't matter? Maybe it really tells us that we all need to be more open minded when we enter into these conversations. In the end I think it is telling that often we value people saying what they think rather than valuing listening to them, or having the conversation make a difference outside the debate.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Learning Curve

I was at a training event for Rethink Church this weekend and one of the other learners at the event raised the question/concern that just as churches are getting the hang of websites we have Facebook and that is followed quickly by Twitter and who knows what is next. It is hard to stay on top of the new technologies and possibilities for ministry. Only having been in the ministry for the least 3 years I can only imagine what is like for people who have been doing it for a lot longer. The impression that I have gotten is that the changes in how technology aids ministry have increased, with notably fewer changes in the 80's than the 90's and even more changes in this decade than the 90's which brought the advent of email and websites, though churches often took their time getting on board with both of those.

One of the biggest challenges I think for the church is that our learning practices are not built for this sort of rapid learning. Churches, like many other institutions are generally adverse to change. Often it takes pressure from leadership and official workshops and mandates to get people to take seriously the need to do something new, like have a website, or a Facebook presence. The problem is that by the time our leadership has seen the need and figured out how to train for it, it is really too late. We often use the language of people being life-long learners. What I always think of when I hear this is taking classes, doing workshops, engaging in formal opportunities to expand my knowledge. Institutions across professions encourgage this by rewarding and often requiring continuing education credits. Unfortuntely the kind of education we really need is something that we cannot get credit for. I am not aware of a formal system to get credit for learning how to use Twitter and researching what churches and other groups are using it for. The classes on things like that happen in conversations with other clergy struggling with the same questions. They happen on message boards and blogs, as groups of people talk about success and analysize failures.

Life-long learner is good. It is good from a practical standpoint and it is what we are meant to do spiritually. At the same time maybe what we need more of is an attitude of life-long experimentation and collaboaration. Light of the Lakes is in the midst of doing something different. We are not the first church to do it, but we are certainly one of the first. We are in a position to try new things and look at things in different ways. For the church to do the best it can to be the Church, we need to keep that attitude of holy experimentation, to not limit ourselves to what has been done and what is proven to work but instead to free us up for trying new things, to work together and fail together, and to share what we learn in that to help the Church grow and reach new people. Because that is really why we are called to learn, collaborate, and experiment, to fullfill our great commission, not our continuing education requirement.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I had the pleasure of being a part of an informational session/conversation on Thursday about Islam. In addition to deepening my understanding of the faith I was reminded me of the things I should have learned in World Religions class if I had been more awake or done more of the readings. Not only that, I also gained an interesting insight about my own faith and chosen religion. The presenter started by asking the question of what a religion was. The purpose of this was to highlight the understanding of the Islamic faith, specifically that Islam is not just about what you believe but is also a product of how you live that faith/belief.

This to me is a great way of looking at Christianity and what we should be emphasizing as well. I do not know enough about other faith traditions, in particular to comment on how well they put their understanding of living out faith into practice, but my experience of Christianity is that end up concerning ourselves too often with orthodoxy (correct thinking) instead of orthopraxy (correct practice). Denominations and individuals fall into the trap of arguing about how the Bible is meant to be understood, read, or what exactly it means. We split hairs, parse out meaning and ultimately do little more than dig ourselves deeper into theological trenches. My worry is simply shifting the conversation to orthopraxy does not fix it. I fear that all that will do is turn the philosphical, analytic cannons of our faith on a new target. Instead of arguing about issues of theology we will end up arguing if using a reusable bag at the grocery store is really a way to live out our faith.

Ulimately it seems to me that problem is not the Doxy or the Praxy, but the Ortho that goes before it. If we stop worrying about getting it exactly right we will have a lot more room for belief and from belief will come action. Religion gets reduced and codify, so we can say if someone is Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, and know what it means. Instead we should worry more about how people of all faiths live them out in the world. None of this is to say I don't have a sense of both a correct orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Afterall, I need something I think is right in order for me to act, but it is not productive to simply worry about getting everything right, because I will never achieve that. At some point we need to go out and try this whole faith thing out, see what it is like to live our faith in the real world and let our faith define who we are, not just in terms of believe but in terms of action, then we really will be religious.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Fencing Head Game and the Church

One of the challenges of fencing, as with many sporting competitions is the head game. An athlete can be physical superior to another, but a bad case of nerves, or a poor outlook and things can go bad quickly. For me the hardest part of the head game was the constant comparison with other fencers. In most fencing competitions everyone warms up and gets ready to fence in the same gym they are going to compete in and so it is easy to start the comparisons between athletes before the fencing tournament has even begun. I for one was especially prone to watching others warm up and as I got better and better looking around for the biggest challenges in the room. Rather than looking for helpful tips to fence them, or preparing myself mentally I tended mostly to sort people into two categories, people I thought I could/should beat and those I thought would beat me. The end result was that I was never really sure my head was in the right place when I would start a bout because I was more worried about the expected result than working on making my own desired result.

Today as I was getting my chai and sitting down to think about church business I got caught in the same sort of head game. I overheard a couple of other people in the coffee shop discussing their church and when they added on the chapel and the coffee shop and how many services one of the other congregations in the area had moved to. It was easy to fall into the trap of comparison, competition, and the ineveitable feeling of failure by contrast. For whatever reason it is easy to start treating congregations and churches like competitions, constantly evaluating who is doing well (usually someone else) and what we could be doing better. Certainly some of that is human nature, or at least natural for a lot of us. The effect however is the same, instead of looking at the success of other conregations as a sign of God's work in the area we fall into the trap of feeling they are stealing our members, or the potential members we want.

In the end I end up being of two minds on this. On the one hand, I know that I am not meant to compete with the other churches since we are all on the same side. On the other hand, if I feel called to do the best job I can for the church, some of doing that requires me to be able to judge what sort of job I am doing, and a good measure of that is how well other churches do as a comparison. Maybe the solution is to spend some time with a sports psychologist and get my head straightened out so I can get back in the game and do better. Or maybe I just need to do a better job of letting go of my competive rivalry and trust the prompting of the spirit to tell me when I could be doing more. I guess I could also try and not think of everything in terms of how it relates to fencing, but I know that is not the answer so I will have to keep thinking and musing.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Radical Root

Last Tuesday in a meeting I had the opportunity to observe one of many amusing and yet perhaps very telling quirks of the English language. As a part of a conversation of how to move forward as a congregation someone observed that what was needed was something radical, they also agreed that what we needed to do was get back to the root of what we had been doing. Now at face value this can almost seem a little contradictory, I mean we tend to think of something radical as far out and different and the root as sort of getting back to the basics. The amusing part of course is the fact that they really mean the same thing. In mathematics, a radical is the square root of something. To be radical is to go back to our roots.

One of the challenges in our world seems to be this tendency to bury and forget about the root. Instead we focus on the huge plant that springs forth from it. The root, the base, the foundation is lost in the midst of the edifice around it. In the end going back to the root, back the base, to what everything is built on is something radical, something exceptional.

Maybe Jesus was a radical because he did just that, point us back to the root, to God. He did not get caught up in the legalisms of the day, but went back to the root, to something truly radical. have we in the church gotten caught in the legalism, the bureaucracy, the edifice that is the Church and forgotten the root? It is a serious question, one that countless others have raised and hopefully many churches and even denominations are considering. As the United Methodist Church begins its campaign to rethink church maybe we need to rethink church mathematical, and find that radical root that got us started, that careful harmony that John Wesley had between personal piety and social action. Or go even further back, to that life with Christ, that reminder that Christ is meant to be the center of what we do, of who we are.

Maybe it is stretching the mathematical imagery further than it should be taken, but I see a striking difference between the search for the radical root and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is based on around certain core principles, getting back to the basics, and yet fundamentalism stops short of getting to that radical root. It stops with whole numbers, easy integers. Getting to the radical root goes a step further, if you keep taking the root of an integer eventually you get to one whose root is no longer rational, but irrational. The root of 81 is 9, the root of 9 is 3, but the root of 3 cannot be expressed with integers, it is irrational. To me that seems that when you get to the root of Christ, you are looking at that irrational number, the square root of 3, inexpressible with simply integers, irrational. Christ is the quintessential irrational, 3=1, the square root of 3. What is really radical about root is in the end we recognize that at the source of the church is something highly irrational, our root cannot be defined in simple integers, a God who will walk among us as a man, will die for us, and will free us all from the power of death. The to me is the radical root.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The heart of USA

Today a lot of news coverage is being given to the auto industry. President Obama has been emphasizing the need to continue to support this crucial industry to the US. One of his claims and one of others as well is that the auto industry is an important symbol of capitalism and of our country. On the one hand the auto industry has done a lot to transform the middle class, build up our country and to transform the way we live and travel. While I agree there will be economic ramifications if the industry fails I do not think it is as essential to what it means to be American as we are sometimes led to believe. I really question if making cars and in turn making money is really what the US is all about. Certainly part of what has made this country the great melting pot is people seeking a better life, seeking their fortune. This country was also founded by and continues to be infused with people seeking a freer life, a life where they can just be. Some of that freedom is economic freedom but it is also religious and political freedom.

Is capitialism and industry what makes this country great, or is it something more. Is capitialism simply a means to an end or has it become and end in and of itself? Now maybe more so than ever we have a chance to make a statement about what is really important to this country. Many people are concerned, and probably legitmately so about the increased government control of different industries, especially the financial sector. They worry that we are sliding slowly towards communism or socialism. Whether or not that is true I would raise this question, has our capitialistic system with its emphasis on the bottom line and making as much money as possible really faired better? I mean, financial institutions of all sorts have shown a clear desire and emphasis on how much money they can make for their shareholders, but they have done so at the expense of our communities. Homes lie empty because of poor lending practices and taxpayers are paying the price in the form of bailouts and other financial reprecutions.

I am not saying cut the auto industry lose, or let the banks fail, nor am I saying that we need the government to step in and make changes, what I am saying that we as citizens need to remember that money is not everything, that what makes this country, or any country great is something more. In the end, we are the shareholders, we, or people like us are the ones these companies are trying to make money for. If we take seriously shifting our priorities we can make a difference. We can send a message that capitialism is not the end, but simply a means to something great, something that makes this country great, freedom.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Regular worship?

Two interesting pieces of information have come to my attention in the last couple of months and I am finally at a point where I want to blog about them. Recently I learned that collective worship attendance in the US is down and yet at the same time participation is up. It seems to be one more piece of information that confirms the theory that people are looking for something more than worship in their church connection. The supporting piece of information and yet fascinating bit to me is the demographic information I found for Baxter, that 18% of the people say their faith is really important to them, that 41% identify as Conservative Evangelical Christian and 17% consider it important to attend religious services. 48% of the population considers it self to be spiritual, which is good to know but at the same two of those numbers really jump out at me, especially in comparison to the others. I would say a strong faith i a key attribute of a person who identifies as a conservative evangelical Christian, after all, the whole notion of these group of people is that they vote their faith. yet at best about 40% of the of CEC's consider their faith is really important to them, and that is assuming that no one else does, which we know is not true. Equally surprising to me is the fact that a similar percentage at best consider it important to attend religious services. Given those numbers it is no wonder that worship attendance is on the decline.

What does this mean for those of us in the business? Do we simply disregard the census data? Do we brush it off by saying that the terminology confuses people ... they may not think of worship as being the same as a religious service. If the data is accurate what does this really say about the population ... which is about on par with the rest of the country. I would believe that only 17% of the country is in worship on a given week but part of me hopes at least another 10% is feeling guilty about not being there and believes that religious services are still important to be at.

Coupled with all of this is really a central question to me ... are pastors like me right in our belief that worship is a good thing and a key aspect of growing in faith AND if that is true, what do we do to start changing that perception in the rest of the community. What have we been doing wrong that the demographic polling data has shown such a shift in public perception. What do we need to do to make worship something that people miss, something that people believe is valuable to their life. The other possibility is to take seriously the Wesleyan notion of taking God to the people. If worship is only important for 17% of the population and even 40% of Christians what are we doing to reach the other 83%, the other 60%. How do we help people answer yes to faith being important in their lives? How do we help people answer yes to being spiritual, yes to the belief that worship is important ... even if they are too busy with hockey this week to go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ahh to Be Old ...

Now I am well aware that at the tender age of 28 I am only old to kids ... some of whom think I am 99, or at least older than their parents, but to the rest of the world I am still young. So today, basking in my youngness I will pause for a minute to look forward to a privilege that seems to come with age ... telling the younger generation what is good for them and what is not. To me perhaps the quintessential example of that right now is Internet social networking. Time and time again I hear people dismissing Facebook and Twitter as ways to waste time and things that act as substitutes for real friends and real relationships. Internet dating and sites like eHarmony and are often looked down upon as ways to meet a person. Now, I have seen the negative powers of the Internet, the ways it can waste time, the ways that it can hinder rather than enhance communication, however there are benefits to it to and it oftens seems like there is a cadre of older people who are quick to point out the faults and not the benefits. The reality seems to be that as the world and society change, generations have different ways of doing things and the hardest thing is to step into another person's shoes and see it their way. I read an article recently that talke about the need for face-to-face human interaction and that hinted that things like Facebook hindered that. On the one hand, I would agree, simply spending all your time online instead of going out and seeing people is a bad thing, however I don't think that Facebook is meant to be designed as deliberate substitute for face time, it is there because face time is impossible. Last night I posted on Facebook that I was not happy about how my previous week had gone. In the course of an hour I had recieved to affirming comments, from my wife's cousin and from a high school best friend's sister. Now, I have people who are immediately supportive in my life, such as my wife, close friends, etc, but it was nice to have two people I would probably never talk to about something be supportive, it was nice to have more connections. So what is the point of all this ... it is not simply to try and show how great social networking sites are and how right my generation is as compared to previous generations ... I mean both of those go without saying! What it reminds me of is the value of perspective and in particular multiple perspectives. Differing generational views can increase the wisdom of everyone, older people can gain some perspective by hearing from younger peole how new technology is helping relationships and increasing connections. Younger people can learn from older people about how society used to create those connections in different ways. It is easy to get stuck in the unintentional rut of thinking our way is the best way, that we have to be doing it right because that is the way we are doing. Other people can give us perspective from outside the rut and can sometimes see the pitfalls in the rut. The challenge is for everyone to realize that we do not know it all, that we are not completely right on something and to continue to value the different views of others, knowing that their critics increase our understanding of the situation, just as we can help increase theirs. That being said, I still look forward to being older when I can sit in judgement on those younger than me and the foolish ways they live their lives.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rethink church?

The United Methodist Church is launching a campaign to rethink church. At the same time my own congregation is in a position where it needs to rethink what our church is called to be. In the process of all this thinking I talked to one of my members who was working at a Bridal Fair over the weekend. In talking with her it occurred to me that part of rethinking church is thinking about where the church is present and where it is not present and if some of that is what needs to change. One of the things that I realized is that places like wedding fairs are somewhere churches really could and arguably should be. We should be there not because weddings are a big business for churches but because a wedding is a time where people should be thinking about church and we do not help them any if we are not present.

Where do people expect the church to be?

Where do people need the church to be?

I read an interesting article which talked about the decline in worship attendance in the US but commented at the same time that church participation is up. Worship is not the end-all-be-all for the church. As we are rethinking church some of the question is not just where, but what. What does the church need to be doing today to continue to meet the spiritual needs of the society AND to continue to serve as a prophetic voice to society. How do find new places to be the church and new ways to do church. Maybe the hardest question of all is how do we do this without creating a disconnect for the people already in church, who are happy with how church already is.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Should we care?

I read an article in the Star Tribune that talked about the effect that FBI spies/informants were having on the atmosphere at mosques around the country. The article said that many Muslims who were just looking for a place to pray were avoiding mosques and that mosques in turn were being more carefully with who they asked to speak or how political they would let a message be. What struck me the most was a comment someone made. They implied that since everyone was welcome in a church that this would include FBI agents and that all a church did was preach the word of God so it had nothing to fear. The reader's comment raises the age old question, does an innocent person have anything to fear from the law?

As a pastor and therefore one of the "gatekeepers" of how welcoming a church is I struggle with government spying on people in church. There is something sacred about places of worship, whether Christian, Muslims, or whatever. To enter into such a space with deceptive purposes to me is disrespectful to that faith and the sacred atmosphere it is seeking to create. The counter to such an argument however is IF someone is using a church/mosque/synagogue for a political agenda, then they have violated the space already and so the FBI is not the one to blame. That only leads to the old "he started it" playground argument. Regardless of who is to blame, the net result of taking the "war on terror" onto sacred ground is that the sacred ground is one more place that will end up scorched. One of the most egregious and horrific acts of the Civil Rights Movement was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in which four girls were killed while attending Sunday school. When we make sacred places part of the battle zone then everyone loses. I believe that the government is called to take a higher road than the criminals are. We do not let our policemen shoot an unarmed person just because the criminals might do the same thing. We cannot lower ourselves to the level of others. The principals of liberty and freedom should still have value in this country.

So how would I feel about an FBI agent spying on my church. First of all I do not think that churches are as innocent or maybe should be as innocent as people make it seem. Abortion clinic bombings are almost always carried out by Christians. It seems likely that some of these bombers might have gotten inspiration/encouragement in their beliefs even if they were never told in church to do it. Should churches be so proud that we do not do anything that is against the law? Shouldn't we actually feel like the church is a safe place to say when we disagree with the law and government? If I knew the government was monitoring what I said on Sunday I would probably rethink some of my sermons, try and reword some of my messages. If we had a perfect government and a perfect justice system maybe I would not be as worried, but the abundance of innocent people in prison and the reality of the witch hunts our government has undertaken looking for communists and terrorists makes me feel we are far from perfect.

The bottom line to me is this, if the government really is about respecting the free practice of religion I believe we need to mak efforts to allow space that is without government incursion for the practice of such religion. One could point to prohibitions around drugs in religious ceremonies, governmental regulations around marriage, and all sorts of other laws as a reminder that we do not really give people unfettered religious freedom, but even if some of thoes laws are justified, spying and deception to me undermine too much this basic right of our country, that we are free to gather and worship as we choose, without fear of the government watching us and monitoring us. At least that is the way I see it right now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Didn't You Eat On Tuesday

As I was growing up my parents were big fans of Charlie King, one of the songs I remember was a tongue and check song called "Didn't You Eat On Tuesday." It raises good questions of the care we give to those less fortunate than most of us. As I was thinking about what I would do for Lent and Ash Wednesday I was struck by the reminder we get in the Gospel for today, that sacrifice should not be a public display but instead a private one. Thinking about this, I was not sure if I wanted to post anything today, but I have decided that my posting could be informative rather than self-promoting. I decide yesterday as I was reading about Ash Wednesday customs that I would try to fast before the soup supper this evening. Already I have had a couple of profound experiences, one is that fasting is hard when you are not awake ... it was not until I had poured a bowl of cereal this morning that I remember I was not going to eat, so I set that aside. I also realized how attached I have gotten to food. Since going without breakfast is a pain, and as lunch approaches I am constantly distracted by my body's cries for food. I think this is a good thing because it reminds me of the suffering that others endure. I will not change the world by not eating today but it reminds me what others go through on a regular basis. My suffering does not glorify me, it glorifies all those who endure this all the time. As an individual largely born into privilege, a male middle-class WASP through and through, I sometimes forget how different the experiences of others are. As Lent begins we often give things up, take on spiritual devotions to help better ourselves. My personal challenge for Lent is to try and use it as a time to reflect on the needs of others. Hopefully I gain some personal insights, but I want to also remember the suffering of others and make sure my sacrfices do more than just help diminish my waist line a bit.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Love of the World

Long ago, at least it seems a long time ago, I decided my theme for Lent would be Love, I would move in concentric circles inwards, starting with Love of the World and ending with Love of Self and ultimately Love of God, which is both the most inwards and most outwards circle. This means that on Sunday I will be talking about the love of the world and how that relates to our lives as Christians.

As I am sitting here in a coffee shop thinking about this one of things I see is a sign by the restrooms that reads "support our local economy" with a web address encouraging people to buy local. I am always concerned about the tension between thinking global and yet also working locally. The two do not need to be exclusive but unless wrapped up in something larger I think they easily can be. One example that comes to mind for me is the question of Buy American, do we spend our money supporting local workers and in turn not helping out foreign producers? If this is done for the sake of making sure we are better off financially and to improve our own standing that is worrying to me, because the motive really becomes one of greed. On the other hand, one reason to support local efforts is the poor labor conditions/standards in foreign countries. Buying products from countries with a good record of supporting the workers can be a good reason to buy American instead of from say China. The same to me is true of an effort to buy local, if we are buying local just to support the people we know instead of the people we do not know, I feel we are ignoring the needs of others and privileging those around us simply because of proximity. Conversely buying local as an environmental effort to support less trucking/shipping costs and the resulting pollution is a good thing.

What it comes down, in my opinion is making sure we are thinking global for the right reasons, understanding that a love of world is a love of all people everywhere, and literally a love of the whole planet. We cannot talk about love in a more local sense until we ground it in that. Things like buying local are important, but only as long as they are not grounded in regionalism and nationalism, issues of false pride, and instead are about building a better more sustainable future for everyone, for the whole world. Well, that is a start to what I am thinking/wrestling with today.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2021 and Beyond!

For many athletes today, the year 2012 and London are synonymous, 2012 being the next Summer Olympics year and London being the venue for that quadrennial competition. I know one fencer seriously training for the event and know one of the national coaches who is also working with fencers to get them ready for that year. As exciting as it would be to dream about what could be glory I could achieve in fencing in the Olympics, I have a humbler goal and a more distant year 2021, that is the year that I become old enough to compete again in age-oriented fencing tournaments. Fencers under 20 compete in Junior tournaments and once you pass 20 you must compete in open events with everyone else, until you reach 40 and suddenly there are "Veteran" events for you. I have compete occasionally and not very successfully in national level tournaments and appreciate that with my life choices, (marriage, being a pastor, serving a church 130 miles from a fencing club), there is little hope for me to ever achieve much glory on the national stage in open tournaments ... but Veterans, that could be a total different story. For that reason I am setting my sights on 2021 and starting to think about what goals I have to be ready for my "rookie" year. It is an interesting process for because it requires so much long range thinking/planning/training, something I am not used to. Still I like the exercise. Whether it is because of our constant expectation of the return of Christ, or just the daily grind of ministry, pastors and churches do not seem to do a good job of looking ahead, of setting large long term goals. The one exception I can think of right now is the 2020 goal to eliminate poverty that we have in Minnesota and that the UMC is on board with. It is good to look far down the road, to plan for the distant future as well. Certainly things will change, long range planning in the early 90's would not have seen the dot-com boom/bust or probably 9/11 and its effects but still it helps to have long range goals, because those can be big. We cannot eliminate poverty in MN in a year, we cannot reduce/eliminate malaria, and I certainly cannot get in shape/practice enough to be competitive at a high level in fencing in a short time, but if we think long term we can dream big, and make the plans to make thos dreams a reality. That is why I am thinking of 2021 and beyond.

Monday, February 9, 2009

"I have become all things to all people"

I preached this week on the lectionary text from First Corinthians this week (9:16-26). I love the text for a variety of reasons but as it was still rolling around in my head this morning something occurred to me, I probably would not have liked Paul in real life. There is something about his tone that I think would have just annoyed me too much. At least in this chapter he comes across as supremely arrogant to me. His staunch claims of needing no reward and must preach the gospel out of compunction seems to demeen anyone who behaves differently. And then there are his brazenly politicing with regards to the gospel. Paul is willing to play whatever part is needed in order to spread the gospel. I both love and hate this idea. On the one hand I think that a lot of great progess has been made for the church at times when it realized that it needed to do something different in order to reach people. The church has often failed the most when it takes on a come to us, be like us attitude, rather than a willingness to realize that some people do not like what they see and do not want to god where they see the church. My wife watches a show on TLC that gives fashion tips to those who really need it. Still the way that this advice is given is not always in the most loving of ways. What occurs is really closer to an intervention and the end result is that almost everyone on the shows comes out looking about the same, they look good, but they look about the same. Is that what we want in the church? Is that what Paul wanted?

Some of what is not clear in this text is what Paul means when he claims to be all things to all people. Is he making a claim to do the ultimate bait-and-switch, that he lures Jews in with the understanding of law only to tell them their is no law, and lures Gentiles in the same way but reversed? Or is Paul instead emphasizing an understanding of Christ as being under the law to Jews and Christ being beyond the law to Gentiles? Is he meeting them in the middle or suckering them over to his side? I kind hope it is the first but something about his tone makes me think the second. Paul makes a third claim as well, to the weak he becomes weak in order to win more over to the gospel. Up until now Paul has operated with a dichotmy, playing both sides, but Paul makes no mention of becoming strong to win over the strong. What goes without saying in this text is that Paul considers himself strong, and needs to make no efforts towards that particular group. He may be one of the most successful church planters ever, but he just is so insufferable at times that I struggle to find the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his almost self-congratulatory claims. Paul maybe the reason a lot of people have found the gospel, but I would be willing to bet he is also the reason a number of people have not found the gospel.

I was reading in Time today about a war being fought on the buses of London, it was started first by atheist but the battle was quickly joined by Christians of a variety of persuasions. Both sides were buying ad space on the buses to spread their religious or anti-religious messages. The one that caught my eye was one done by a Christian group that quoted Psalm 14, that fool says in their heart they do not believe in God. The not so subtle implication of course being that all these atheists and their billboards were fools. Ignoring the logical fallicy of such a claim, to me it was a bad thing because it did not reach out to those doubting or question God, but instead brushed them aside, mocked them, questioned them. In addition to being an incorrect assessment of the "if then" proposition to was also an ad hominen argument, assailing not the ideas of the person but instead calling into question who they were. It was one more strong arm tactic of a self-assured Christian.

The final blow, or final tipping point for me in all of this came when I heard on the radio today someone bemoaning that Obama was looking weak in seeking compromise compared to the GOP and their tactics. I would actually agree to some extent, but what I actually object to is this constant belief that compromise is weak, and really that weak is bad. Paul seemed to think it was that way, needing to reach the weak but still asserting his own strength, his own ultimate ability to be everything for everyone. I guess where I keep finding myself going in all of this is, is there a place for a weak evangelist, someone who reaches out, not in the strength of their own truth, but instead in the weakness of wanting to seek also, and how does one do so effectively? Can someone with some certainty earnestly seek along those without certainty? Is it weakness to acknowledge that my own understandings might be wrong? Is that sort of weakness a bad thing? Not sure where this has gone, how comprehensible it was, or where it leads to, so if you have made it this far and feel your time has been wasted, I offer you a full refund. Have a nice day.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Being a little brother

It took me almost 28 years but I finally got the chance to feel like a little brother. Ok, I am probably exaggerating a bit, especially given how little I recall of the first few years of my life, but recently I got another chance to feel like the little brother, the first in a while. I am less than a year and a half younger than my older brother, Jonathan, so for most of our childhood I do not remember having the problem of always trying to play catch-up. We did a lot together but for the most part I found a way to be competive with him. The "friendly" competition between Jonathan and I has had some interesting side effects. In high school while he was doing cross-country skiing I was doing fencing, so we did not have a good basis for comparison, but in college when I managed to outski Jonathan he turned around and upped the ante by running a marathon. Not to be outdone, this last year I responded to challenge and ran a marathon with him. Of course we were not "racing" but I would point out that I finished before him, though there was a stretch where I was walking on Summit Ave wondering if I could start running again if he passed me. Anyway, like I said, for the most part when we compete it is on a fairly even playing field.

So a couple of Saturdays ago, despite the negative temps and even worse windchills my brother and I went skiing at Como Park. Finally I got the chance to feel like a real little brother, always pushing just to catch up with my big brother who was always a hill or a turn ahead of me. Just as a side note, Como is a terrible place to play catch-up. The trails make good use of the space, doubling back and forth to give you lots of skiing, but it means you always think you are close until you realize that the person is actually way ahead of you and it is just that the trail doubles back. So all of this to say that it was interesting, fun, and furstrating to be playing catch-up. It gave me something to push for. When you are head it is easy to pace yourself based on the people behind you, just working to stay head of them, but when you are behind you have someone pushing you to faster than you want. I like that kind of competition. I once hiked up a part of a mountain with my cousin, maintaining a remarkable pace through out it because neither of us wanted to be the one to slow down.

As I raced to keep up with my big brother I appreciated what healthy competition can do to keep us motivated. Being behind my brother encourages me to work harder so that next time things are closer. Being behind is something we tend to look down on. In the US we take pride in the fact that we are #1 and we work hard to stay #1, but we do not work nearly as hard as maybe we would if were #2 and trying to keep up with #1. Sometimes it helps to have that person ahead of us that makes us work a little harder. The impressive and stunning plays at the end of the Super Bowl were not made by the team that was ahead, playing to keep their lead, but by the team behind, trying desperately to take the lead. Maybe it is better in some ways to be #2 instead of #1, at least that is what this little brother, this #2 child is thinking today. Plus it takes the sting off the fact that my older brother completely outskiied me

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day

I am a bit of a non-conformist and so some part of me rebels at the notion of honoring MLK when everyone else is doing it, not because he is not deserving of honor, but because everyone else is doing it too. At the same time MLK is definitely one of my heroes both in his actions and his thinking.

What I want to highlight today is MLK's keen insight into the state of the church and to give my own struggles and perhaps convictions with that same insight.

In his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, King observes:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are."

What I love about this quote is the accurate assessment that churches tend to be better thermometers than thermostats. However at the same time I am convicted and challenged by his assessment. King, rightly argues in his Birmingham letter that the role of the church is not to be silent on issues of justice but to stand up and fight for the rights of everyone. Where I struggle is how that need to fight balances against other needs that exist for the church. Should a church or a denomination that is struggling with growth issues or financial issues set those aside in favor of issues of justice?

Here are my two thoughts on that: 1) a church cannot help others if it cannot help itself. You would not expect a sick person to donate an organ, instead you would look to a healthy person for such a service. Churches that are struggling with declining numbers and difficult finances do not help anyone if embracing issues of justice creates further conflict for them or distracts them from the things they need to do to recover and be a health part of the Body of Christ. 2) If a church is not willing to stand up for issues of justice, what does it matter if they are healthy or not? It seems to me that justice and compassion for all is a cornerstone of the church that Christ founded, how can we call ourselves a healthy church, or really even a church if we do not concern ourselves with these issues.

Unfortunately as a pastor I can see a great many issues of justice that divide congregations: issues around sexuality, poverty, and immigration raise serious challenges and disagreements as to how we as a church are to respond. Can the resulting conflict as you try and work for justice do more harm than good? How is the church called to be a bastion of change and seek justice while also respecting its own internal differences and its own internal issues?

All that being said, I am grateful for all the work that MLK did and on this day I remember not only his work and legacy but also the work of the countless people, well-known and obscure, who helped to bring his dream closer to reality.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Playoff Fever

It is playoff time in the NFL and so naturally my thoughts tend to be influenced by that. Yesterday morning however my thoughts were much more focused on my sermon and how it just did not feel like a good one. One of the first things I learned in seminary is that no matter how good or bad a sermon is, you can never know if it is going to make a big difference or not for people. That is not to say that as a pastor I do not strive to preach the best sermon I can, but I do so knowing that there are a lot of factors outside of my control (thank goodness).

Some of what made it hard for me was that my sermon was basically the first thing I did after coming back from vacation and so it did not get the full week of attention a sermon usually does. The bottom line is that it was easy to come up with excuses for why this would be an off week, but it raised the question in my mind, is it ok for a pastor to have an off week? Is it really possible to avoid it? Which brings me back to the playoffs and football. Football, like preaching has one big day, Sunday, with everything else as prep leading up to it. Football has a lot of regular season games that lead up to the playoffs. Each of these games on their own means less but combined determine a teams fate, will they make the playoffs or not. For this reason coaches often talk about the one game at a time strategy, getting their players focused and ready to play each and every game, never looking to the next week, approaching each game with the same level of passion and intensity. I feel like preaching is similar. Each week is not likely to make or break a church, though I was reminded this week by my relatives that a bad sermon really can set the wrong tone. Also in preaching there are some obvious "playoff" games, things like baptisms, confirmation, Christmas, and Easter, times where you have lots of people and often more unaffliated people than usual in the congregetion. These are really the sermons you want to come out strong on. I guess my real question is can a team, or a preacher really keep the one game at a time, every sermon is a playoff sermon, mentality up or does the mind simply adjust and still takes those less important games/sermons in a different way than the really big ones? I was hearing on the radio today about how we build up tolerances to drugs, can we do the same to that playoff style pressure, so that eventually we are just as lax as we used to be, despite our best efforts.

Maybe there is that other question, should every sermon be preached like it is a Christmas sermon? I was taught in fencing to always lunge at about 80% of my maxium range, so that I could lunge further if needed. Should I be preaching at 80% so I can preach better if needed? Does preaching at less than 100% do the congregation a disservice or does it keep me from burnout and from my 100% being closer to what was once 80%. Just some thoughts.