Monday, August 9, 2010

Beyond the Facts Ma'am

USA Today recently published an article about an increase in young pastors going into seminary.  While the information in the article was well put together what struck me were the listed reasons for young people suddenly coming to seminary in larger numbers.  In the tagline for the article they talked about alturism, demographics, and the economy being factors.  In the text of the article they focused more on increasing demographics and spent some time on denominational efforts, but even then the focus was on scholarships and other incentives or help.  What went under-represented in my mind was the real reason people go to seminary and more importantly become pastors ... a call to ministry.  While scholarships help people repsond to a call and a lack of money can hold someone back from seminary occasionally, I would like to believe that it is not simply an increase in number of young people in general that has cuased the increase in people going into ministry.  The challnge for the church in the midst of this is to not get caught up in these facts but remember we believe in some other factors as well.  I believe that God calls people to ministry not based on demographics or scholarships or anyhting else, but on a need.  To me the rise in people hearing a call to ministry is thanks in part to the work of denominations that encourage young people to know they can be called but also because God is calling more young people to meet a great need we have in the church.  I am reminded of when Jesus talked about needing more workers for the harvest.  From USA Today's perspective the facts are about demographics and scholarships.  From the Church's it is about people help others repond to the call (like Eli does for Samuel) and about how God is calling more people to the work of the Church.  The real story is not about the facts but about what God is still doing in the Church.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Money as Speech

My brother is the Supreme Court expert, not me, but I know at some point the Court determined that use of money is a protected form of free speech.  The Court also recently ruled that corporations are people too ... or at least they get the same rights as us.  Polls seem to indicate that in general people support the idea that giving money to campaigns is a form of free speech and should be protected and thus not restricted.  At the same time I think we have a reluctance to recognize the other ways that we let money speak for us.  Target Corporation recently gave money to support a business minded Political Action Committee (PAC) ... that PAC then gave money to support Emmer, the endorsed GOP candidate for governor in MN.  This obviously upset a portion of Targets faithful shoppers who had no intention of personally giving money to support Emmer and do not like the idea that a fraction, however small, of the money they spend at Target is going to support someone they do not support.  I feel like I could spend a great deal of time discussing the pros and cons of Targets choice to support Emmer (who the PAC considers the better candidate for big companies) but I would rather focus on something else, which is why more of us do not remember that like Target we have the ability to use our money as a form of speech as well.  I am not saying we should all go out and give the legal maximum to whataver candidate or party we support but instead we should consider what other ways we make a statement with our money.  We could make a statement that we do not want companies using profits to make campaign contributions, and not give our business to those companies that do.  Or we make a statement by shopping at local business over big corporations, or buying Fair Trade coffee (or similar brands) instead of other types of coffee.  Every dollar we spend can be used to make a statement, just like ever word we say expresses something.  Are they all of equal importance, probably not, but I feel we do ourselves a disservice if we do not think about what we are saying, with our mouths and with our wallets.  I may not place a lot of trust in corporations, but I do trust that they are willing to do what it takes to make money, and so the message that each of us sends with our dollars makes a difference ... maybe now we just need to be more intentional about what that message is.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Creating Ritual

I have been challenged to create a ritual to help me in the starting of my day off, my Sabbath.  Today it seems like the most prevelant ritual is TGIF ... going out for a drink or something special to initiate the weekend.  Obviously there are more detailed and beautiful rituals in the Jewish faith for the starting of the Sabbath.  Recently I am becoming more and more of the value of ritual and the deliberate work it takes to create them.  Rituals get their power through repetition and through intentionality.  I think my laid-back nature tends to make it hard for me to practice ritual well, but at the same time there are unintentional ways that I am creating ritual all the time.  I say a similar offering prayer every week, moving my hands in similar ways.  I pray the same pray before I preach (unless I forget).  All of these things work, intentionally or otherwise to create rituals for me, for the congregation I serve.

So what are good rituals to create when it comes to time off, Sabbath, the weekend.  Is it a time of silence observed at the end of work ... a release of what I have been working on and an emptying before beginning a time of rest?  Is it a "drink" at the end of the day ... some way of clearly marking that work is done because the fun has begun?  When does the event occur?  At sundown?  When the last meeting is over on Thursday?  Before I leave "the office" or when I get home?  Maybe the reason that pastors, myself include struggle with having a healthy Sabbath time is that we struggle with the boundaries of our Sabbath.  When you work odd hours and work outside an office as well as in it there is not a clear transition point ... that 5 pm Friday commute where you move from the world of work to the world of the weekend.  We talk about boundary violations in ministry a lot, but usually we are referring to boundaries between people.  Instead we maybe need to be talk about boundary violations between our time and God's time ... between work and rest.  To begin to talk about that I think we first need to find ways to mark the boundaries ... otherwise it is hard to know when we have crossed the line.  Pastors really do need ritual to help us move from one space to another.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Death to compromise?

For weeks I have been stewing about the increasing divisiveness and growing polarization in our society.  It seems that people are digging deeper and deeper trenches and not only demonizing the enemy, but anyone who consorts with them.  I recently found myself discussing how this even creeps into the church and it seems that we fail to be the good Body of Christ, and instead fall into the trap Paul talks about, where the eye says to the ear I have no need for you.  I believe we are stronger because of our differences.

So then last night someone I was talking to brought up this news report they had seen on Fred Phelp's church, famous currently for picketing at soldiers funerals, not to protest the war but because they believe the soldiers deaths are God's way of punishing the US for our "lax" stance on issues such as homosexuality.  So where does Fred Phelps and his followers fit into the Body of Christ?  There is a part of me that wants to say they are the eye the causes the rest of us to sin and so we need to pluck them out ... but that makes me no different from them, or from the "with us or against us" attitudes that are currently irritating me.  It is true to my feelings though ... I feel that the concept of the Body of Christ, the notion of a loving God is hurt by a church that only talks about who God hates, which seems to basically everyone.  How do we speak out against them, enter into dialouge with them, maintaining their validity as equal children before God, while still saying we have major differences that drive us apart?  What can we do to help everyone realize we are One Body ... and we need to be more comfortable with our many many parts?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Just a few words ...

I was reminded recently about the power of the word "just."  If you are like me the word just tends to slip into sentences without much thought.  Its meaning slowly taints what we mean to say.  Just is one of those challenging words because ironically enough it causes us to make judgements.  I am not talking about "just" as in "the trial was just."  What I am talking about is more along the lines of "the trial was just three days long."  Now if the trial only lasted three days then the trial really was just three days long ... but we can also read that to mean the trial was only three days long and it could have, or even more judgmentally it should have been more.

Where this because real to me is when we start talking about faith.  In The United Methodist Church we celebrate open communion, and there are times I try and define this as saying that "we just ask that you seek God in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup."  Now this might be the only requirement we ask but I would hope we realize it is not a simple one.  One does not "just seek God" in a casual and minimalist way.  It is not like saying we "just ask you to bring yourself" or other statements where just is meant to diminish a require and minimize the cost.  When it comes to some maters of faith, just is not meant to minimize something it is meant to expand it.  Maybe what is closer to the truth is not "we just ask ..." but instead "we ask that you just seek God ..."  Still that same message of only God, but now not in a way to make it easy but in a way to make it hard.

What do we just ask of people ... and how do we limit ourselves with such a simple word ... but those are just my thoughts. :)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fair Trade

I talked today with Pastor Rory after he returned from India.  He was telling me some fascinating stories about the experiences with poverty he had while visiting a ghetto there.  He talked aabout seeing a sweat shop where workers used modern equipment to make brand name merchandise, except the brand was not applied in the sweat shop, it was applied later so that no one would have to claim they knew it was coming from a sweat shop.

All of this got me thinking about what kind of clothes I buy, when I buy clothes, which is really not that often.  I started doing some research on Fair Trade clothes to see what that would look like.  I found several sites that talked about their clothing coming from union run places, usually in Canada or the US.  On the one hand that seems like a great idea, buy more locally, buy clothes that are made at a reasonable wage level, and do my part to help create a more sustainable economy.

There seems to be a secondary question though.  While on the one hand deplorable buying clothes from sweat shops does have the advantage of providing these people with some sort of income, some sort of job.  Is the community better for having that income lost? Wouldn't there be risk of hurting the economy of India, especially those most impoverished by removing those jobs, even at their poor wage levels from the economy.  I remember reading that Gandhi, when he started a strike on British made clothes in India in favor of locally made products sent money to workers in England who were out of work because India was no longer shipping cotton there for work.  He did not want the effort towards financial independence and workers in India to be won at the expense of workers in England.

I love the idea of buying local, of building up local ecnomies, but I also am aware that we are part of a global a community and our buying decisions have an impact on people everywhere.  Sadly my 9th grade level understanding of economics does not make it easy to parse out the best way to help everyone.  In the end I think we just need to be deliberate, to try and do our best for everyone, and to know that we are going to make mistakes, but to do so hoping to helping everyone, not just ourselves.  At least that is what I think right now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When I am president ...

I was at Baxter Elementary School this morning and in honor of President's Day they read a short essay one of the kids had written about what they would do if they were president. It was basically work for peace, feed the hungry, care for those in need. It was quite touching. It was beautiful in its simplicity, in the lack of partisanship in it. There were no litmus test answers, what the child's stance on abortion, terrorism, universal health care, any of it. All I heard was a concern for others. I do not like to be negative about politics but I fear that too many of our politicians, maybe too many of us who vote have lost that youthful idealism, that politics is about making the world a better place. I am not saying we cannot disagree, I am not saying we cannot want to do different things to make the world better. What I am saying is that we need to remember that making the world better is what it is all about. This has become quite clear to me as I read the political news lately. Senator Bayd of Indianna, a moderate democrat, is not seeking re-election because he believes the system is broken and he cannot bring the two different sides together. Senator McCain of Arizona is facing a fight in his Republican primary because he is not conservative enough for some people. It seems that both sides forget about making the world a better place and instead become focused on making sure the other side does not get the credit for doing it. First Corinthians has a great line ... "when I was a child I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things." Maybe we need to get back to thinking, dreaming, hoping, acting like children, or maybe the problem is that we who are adults are still acting like children and it is time to grow up. Whatever the way you phrase it, I think the bottom line is we need to get back to the basics of politics, serving the people, making the world better, and stop worrying about how is winning when we do it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Forms of worship

I was interviewed this week as part of the ordination process and one of the things that I talked about was how we were changing the worship style as we launched New Light to better fit with my own personal style. Previously I had always done worship in the form the congregation had. Now we were trying to find the right form for me. It has been nice to explore the ways that I want worship to be and to find the things that fit for me.

All of this raises some interesting questions. My wife recently attended a workshop on worship that talked about different worship styles and different needs people have for worship. It is no secret that worship tends to be attended more by women. One theory for this is that our worship styles tend to be more appealing for women and it probably creates a certain cycle. If we accept the premise that worship appeals to a certain type of people, those are the ones most likely to then be inspired to go into ministry and thus their own style of worship will likely be similar to the one they experienced their call out of. This is not always the case but it seems like it would have an effect.

One of the things people often joke about is how worship for them is on the golf course, or while fishing. Now, as someone who golfs (sort of) and who finds a great deal of worship and beauty in nature, I can appreciate that there is some truth to this, but I also think it is a bit of a cop-out. Still it raises the question, for someone who worships in active ways, what does worship look like?

I think the real question I am wrestling with here, is whether there is something fundamental to worship or is it all contextual. Some people want active worship, some want passive, some want loud, some quiet, some want to be talked to, some what to have a chance to respond. Is there really anything central to worship other than God. Isn't it that the case that everything else is extra, everything else is just personal preference. So how do I find the ways to encourage people to find their own worship style, not as a way to get out of showing up on Sunday morning, but as a way to help them truly experience and relate to God? How does the church, equipped with this knowledge go from centuries of really offering only one or two styles of worship, to basically encouraging infinite variety? Do we even need to offer all of them?

Thursday, February 4, 2010


So there is a part of me that thinks I blogged about this a year or two ago ... but it is on my mind right now, so you are stuck with a potential repeat.

As we prepare to launch worship at New Light UMC in Baxter, I am forced to take every Sunday worship like it is a playoff game ... "win" or go home. It adds pressure to the moment, but it also I think brings out the best in a person like me. I take preaching seriously ... after all I am trying to communicate the Word of God. Just the same, I find myself focusing even more on it, and well everything when each service has a greater meaning, a greater impact.

So what I am pondering is this ... why haven't I been like this before now. Why don't all churches, all pastors bring their playoff level play to each week? Is it because we just cannot find the time to do it? Is it because we do not have the same immediacy to drive us? Does it simply not help enough to be worthwhile in the long run?

I think the answer is mixed ... I think for me there were times when I was just too busy, there is also a part of me that does not see the rewards of more work enough to inspire me to try harder. I was hearing on MPR last night about people who scan luggage for guns that as the percentage of bags with illegal items decreases their ability to spot them also decreases, the brain actually gets worse at seeing the same things. I wonder if it is not the same way with worship. There are weeks I slave over the sermon, polish the ideas, and really work at it, and in return get no more complimants or even fewer than usual. Other weeks I struggle with writer's block and end up with a final product that I feel is sub-standard, and people love it. It is hard to evaluate the effects of our effort.

The bottom line however is that worship is not about winning, it is not about being attractive to new members, it is not about anything except the worship of God. If we do that well, nothing else matters. If we do that well, everything else will fall into place.

Monday, January 25, 2010

So I fence, a sport where the object is to hit another person with a sword, and yet largely it does not hurt if done properly. In fact most of the pain caused in the sport is accidentally or the result of poor execution. By contrast, football is a sport where the object is to carry a ball across a goal line and yet causing injury seems to be built into it. While there are ways that you are not allowed to hit a person, and times that such actions are penalized, there are a lot of "clean" hits that leave a person in a great deal of pain.

I have always justified my participation in fencing as being ok, because the intent is never to cause harm. As a proponent of non-violence I would find it hard to be a part of an activity that encourages violence. I spent last night watching the Vikings Saints game. In general it was a very good game, but one thing was unsettling to me. For the second week in a row the Saints went into the game with a strategy that to win they were going to cause as much harm as possible to the aging quarterback they faced. They were not doing it out of malice (I assume) but simply under the theory that an injured person gets a little nervous the next time someone is flying at them and might make a mistake. It all is "legal" and in that sense a valid strategy to win. But for me it is unsettling.

Is it morally justifiable to cause harm under the auspices of a game. On the one hand the Saints could argue they were just as open to being hit, that the Vikings could do the same to them, and so there was nothing wrong with it. But there is a part of me that feels at a deeper level it is wrong to normalize causing harm. In addition to creating an atmosphere of aggression, it can lead to glorifying the very same things. The recent concussion scandel in the NFL can maybe be traced to this same atmosphere that encourages players to slam into each other as hard as possible, to ignore pain at all costs and to do what they can to cause pain to the other side. I recently heard one annoucer decrying a penalty for an excessive hit, implying that some of the players might as well be wearing skirts. Even if you ignore his appalingly sexist remark, the implication that some players just are not tough enough was a problem. The sport needs people who will handle more pain.

Now I am "picking" on football because I just watched it last night, but the reality is that video games, other sports, movies, etc, all do the same thing. They all find ways to normalize harm, to encourage a culture of violence. If a person, such as myself, does consider it wrong to encourage acts of violence should we find other sports to watch, other movies, other games? They exist. Even movies like Harry Potter do a good job of allowing for violence to exist, but showing it in a way that does not glorify it, but instead raises the question if there is not that "still better way."

I like watching football, I like the strategy, I like the excitement, I like the plays. But is that enough ... does the violence seemingly inherant in the game mean I need to find something else to watch? Or is there another way to play?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

God of Silence, God of Noise

When you look at the Bible, God seems to be presented in one of two ways, abundant noise, great light, complete vastness, such as how Moses tended to experience God, a God that is too awesome to behold. On the other side of the coin is the God of Elijah, the still small voice, the God that exists not in great fire or earthquake but in the silence behind the wind. That still small voice can be seen in other religious texts as well, such as the Tao Te Ching, which talks about how the Tao is found in the emptiness, the silence, the void. The bottom line is God does not tend to be found in the middle or maybe in the middle we find Jesus, but that sounds like a different topic so I am going to ignore it for the purposes of this blog.

Do we tend to find God in the noise or do we find God in the silence? I imagine it is different for different people. I know people who have heard or seen God in a visual or audible way, others I think find God the most in the midst of noise, hymns of praises, songs that rock with the beat of the spirit.

In general I find God in the silence. When I talk to God I do not hear the answers, but I do get a reply. I find my heart being turned, my mind pushing against something that redirects me, that leads me to look at it in a different way, to me that is the silent prompting of God, a way that God communicates even in the silence, even just in my mind. These last few days I have found God over and over again in streets of glistening white, trees silvered by the frost. In the still and the silence of that beauty, my heart is enlarged with the presence of God.

Where do you find God? Does God appear in noise and in brilliant fashion, or in stillness, silence, peace? Or fine, does God appear in that middle form, that balance of silence and noise that is Christ? Where do you find God? When do you seek for the divine?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Insert profound thoughts here

I have been staring at this blank page for about ten minutes ... clicking over to Facebook or email in hopes of a distraction thinking "what can I say today." I have wanted to get back to blogging for a while so I am trying to build back up good habits, but the challenge I face now is what in the world do I say. What I think makes it hard for me when it comes to all social media sites, blogs, facebook, etc, is the need to feel profound. Maybe I take Mark Twain's comments about opening your mouth and proving you are a fool to seriously. Maybe its the fact that I hear to many criticisms from others about the inane nature of these new forms of communication and want to make sure I am not feeding into that. Maybe it is just that I want everyone to think/realize how smart I am, so I only want to say something if it is really profoudn. Whatever the reason it tends to create a certain amount of writer's block when it comes to things like blogging.

I know that I am not the only who struggles with this either. Often I am at the other end of, people not wanting to say to much to me because they do not want me to know how much they know, or do not know about the Bible or faith. I think we have all heard the expression "there are no dumb questions" or "no wrong questions." Do we take this to heart?

Maybe the real question is are we better off with the information deluge we are currently faced with, having to sort out the nuggets of useful information from the vast sea of stuff that is just not helpful or relevant to us. Or are we better off losing some of that information, because people like me are unsure we have somehting to contribute or do not think what we do have is worth offering up. Given the interesting "rabbit holes" I have followed by clicking on links and reading blogs and posts, I would say more is better than less. So whay do I always air on the side of less?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Two Sides Not So Far Apart

I grew up in a family passionate about issues of peace and justice. As such I a grew up listening to people like Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, and other less known folk singers like Charlie King. We did not really listen to pop music and certainly did not listen to country. Our music focused on causes of social justice at home and abroad, and the plight of workers and the everyday guys kept down by governments and corporations.

When my older brother graduated high school he worked for a couple of summers at my aunt and uncle's business and while there he picked up some country music habits from our cousins. What he brought back proved my "worst" fears that it really was all about drinking and women and pickup trucks. (okay, not really, but enough to at least confirm my own stereotypes.) I continued in my own preferences for "better" music and neer really gave country much more thought ... except I still associate Garth Brooks with playing Golden Eye 007 on the Nintendo 64, which my brother and I did a lot that year.

Since marrying a woman who was born in Tennesse, sister lives in Texas, and parents live an hour north of Nashville, I have obviously had more occasions to once again encounter the genre that is Country. This Christmas I went to a concert at the Rymen (home of the Grand Old Opry). I have to admit I cannot remember the name of the group we listened to but they again went a long ways to confirming my concerns about the message of country ... which at its worst seems to be about drinking, the glorification of alcoholism, some questionable treatment of women, and jingoism. Now that is not to say I did not hear some great songs, some funny songs, or some talent musicans as well, but some of the negatives did stand out as well. Buried in those "negatives" was something else as well, a great respect for the blue collar, hard working, individuals. What surprised me the most was that late in their set they began singing a song "I Shall Be Released" by Bob Dylan ... a song I knew from listening to Peter, Paul and Mary.

There are a lot of differences between folk singers and country singers ... especially when it comes to politics and such, but deep down at the bottom both them hold this same fundamental passion for the everyday person. It gets approached in different ways, we have different ideas of what is right and good and all, but in the end we all want the same thing, we all want freedom. It is easy to get stuck on our differences, the "negatives" we see in each other. What I was reminded of at the country music concert was that we also have the a lot fo the same values at heart as well.

I was also reminded that next time I go to a country music concert I am sitting in the non-alchohlic section.