Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Reason for the Season

So maybe it is just my constant desire to be contrary but I keep thinking about how Christmas is really about the "getting" and not the "giving."  Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of finding more ways to give during the Christmas season and I appreciate the efforts of the such things as the Advent Conspiracy to help us find new ways to give to others at Christmas ... but is that really the message of Christmas?  Is it really about what give or instead about what we receive.

I have been told that I am hard to shop for.  I never understood this since I can always think about more things that I want.  What I have realized over the years is that while I do a good job of thinking about these things I don't actually do a good job of asking for them.  I know what I want ... but I don't let other people know.  So instead of being easy to shop for I become a challenge.  I don't like to ask for gifts probably because I buy into this idea that is not about what we get but instead about what we give.  Receive things seems greedy while giving is something that is selfless and my parents raised me to be a giver.  Christmas is not really about giving though ... it is about what we receive.

I am not saying we need to give in to companies like Amazon that barrage us with daily attempts to get our money.  I am not saying we solely judge our Christmas by how large a stack of gifts we get.  I am saying we need to do a better job of thinking not just about what we give but what we receive.  Not just about about we can do for others but what we need for ourselves.  If we look at the story of Christmas it is about a great gift and it is not as much about the giver but about everyone who receives it.  In the story of Christmas we are meant to identify with the people who receive the gift (humanity) not he giver (God).  For some reason we forget this at times.  Christmas actually is about getting a gift.  Two thousand years ago I suspect that people knew what God could give them ... freedom from the Romans for one thing.  If you think the IRS is bad, imagine having to travel somewhere else AND then pay your taxes on top of it.  Do we know what we want from God this year?  Have we though about what we need?

Obviously God does not give us everything we ask for (that's what Santa is for).  If we never ask anything of God though, are we letting God be the great giver for us?  If we make Christmas all about what we give to others do we try to replace God?

Now I just need to get around to actually writing my Christmas list ...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Might and Right

A recent incident on the Miami Dolphins football team has awakened my frustration with a prevailing theme in our culture, the idea that physical might is an answer to problems.  The alleged incident is that bullying occurred over an extended period of time between members of the football team that has ultimately resulted in one member, Martin, leaving the team (because of being bullied) and another, Incognito, being suspended for his alleged role in the incident.  I have read several articles and numerous quotes and comments within those articles that emphasize the same point, that while the bullying was bad, it was wrong of the first player to not stand up for himself, not seek private redress, and instead left the situation and complain to the media about it (only after being asked).  The bottom line for many is that by NOT fighting back the one being bullied was weak.  Over and over people tried to make clear that they do not condone bullying but for a football player it was expected to fight back because that is what will really stop the bullying.  If he had not been so "soft" this would not have been a problem.

There are two things horribly wrong with this whole mess in my mind.  One is that we are still stuck on blaming the victim.  Over and over I see comments and suggestions about what Martin could have and should have done.  Mostly it involves fighting back, standing up for himself, or otherwise "being a man."  Why is any of this Martin's fault?  How is the poor choices and horrible conduct of another person his responsibility?  There are times when both parties in a situation can be at fault but I think by definition things like abuse and bullying are NOT those kind of situations.  From what I can tell it appears that Martin did a very Christian thing, turning the other check and not responding when he was abused.  People try and make a distinction because he is a football player and not some poor kid having his lunch money taken.  I don't think that is a fair distinction, abuse is abuse.  It is also not a fair distinction because we say the same things about kids and other victims of abuse, like rape victims who get accused of wanting it, being at fault for how they dressed, leading a person on, and so much worse.  We need to take responsibility for our negative actions not look to blame the victim of those actions.

The second thing I object to is this myth that being strong means fighting back.  Jesus preached on and lived the idea of turning the other check.  He chose to NOT fight even when faced with death and yet so many Christians seem to ignore this teaching when it comes to our own lives.  We live in a culture where the correct response when attacked is to fight back, to get revenge and to get that eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and even life for a life.  The fact of the matter is that I think Gandhi is right, all that leaves us with is world that is blind.  I want my son to grow up in a world where he doesn't have to be violent to survive.  I think this is done NOT by perpetuating a myth that fighting back is the answer and instead by working to create a society where bullying is not tolerated and not seen by anyone as a way to use/abuse their power.  Every day we turn on the news and see the signs of violence in our culture, in the news stories of yet another shooting, to the endless stream of games that let us live out our fantasy of violence and warfare.  When are we going to say enough is enough.  When are we going to stop looking to the victim for what wrong and instead look at the one causing the pain and look at ourselves and wonder what we are doing to let it happen.  There are 51 other players on the active roster for the Dolphins that watched the bullying occur, not to mention the dozens of coaches and staff on that organization that must have had some idea of what was occurring.  Why did they stand by and let it happen?  Why do we all just stand by and watch the violence that surrounds us.  I don't have answers but I do know this ... it starts with me.  It starts with you.  Until we stop buying into this culture of violence it is never going to change.  It is time to say enough is enough.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Minority Rules?

The recent shut-down of the government highlights a continued struggle we have in our democracy ... the tension between the power of the majority and the minority.  In simple playground logic democracy is built on the idea that the majority rules.  If we look deeper into our system of government however we see that all over the place are rules and customs that allow for power to be held not just by the majority but also the minority.  It starts with our elections, where the winner of the popular vote is not necessarily the winner of the election when it comes to Presidents.  It is also possible for the minority to have power when it comes to things like a veto (where the president can over rule 65% of senators and representatives) and the filibuster in the Senate the allows for an individual to stand up and delay the process.  We have seen in it play out nationally where the House refuses to work with the Senate and President, (though they would frame the situation differently) and in Wisconsin, where state senators fled the state in order to stop votes on legislation they were opposed to.  There are clear instances where a minority is able to assert itself over the majority.  Is this really what a democracy is about?  You could also add in the further wrinkle of the will of the voters (or at least a random sampling of their will).  Should the fact that X% of the voters feel one way or another about an issue become a mandate in favor of something?  A majority of senators can easily represent a minority of the population if pulled from small states.  What does the rule of majority look like?

In 2012, The United Methodist Church continued its decades old debate around the issue of homosexuality.  Every four years the church debates about and ultimately votes to change, or not change its stances on any number of issues.  This time one of the suggestions was to add language that United Methodists were not of one mind on the issue of homosexuality.  This vote failed but it raises one of the problems of majority rule ... it can easily be used to erase the voice of dissent.  A majority of delegates decided they felt the "not of one mind" language was not necessary to be added.  Maybe it was because they felt strongly that the church's current stance around homosexuality was good or maybe they felt that adding a voice of disagreement was inappropriate when we don't agree about pretty much anything else either.  A strong minority however wanted that language included.  Under our system where the majority rules this group gets ignored.  They lost the vote, and we move on, but shouldn't the fact that we clearly don't agree on an issue matter?  Is the minority that much less important because they are the minority?  Now I am not saying that the minority is MORE important than the majority, but maybe they are just as important.

I have been a part of several groups that used a consensus model of decision making in order to get things done.  Rather than a simply up or down vote the conversation continues until everyone is in agreement on something.  Can it be abused ... certainly ... but it can also be transformational.  Now it is not just a matter of counting votes and getting to 51%.  Instead we are forced to listen to each other and hear what is causing the other side to disagree.  It moves us from a dichotomous thinking (am I for this or against it) and instead forces us to think creatively: what is important to me, what is important to them, and how do we a find a way for everyone to be happy.  It helps us to focus on the other person's values instead of our own.  Now we are not just thinking about how our side wins, but how everyone does, and that makes things better for all of us.

I love that we are a democracy, but the root of a democracy to me is not majority rules (that tends to be more of mob rule) but instead the idea that everyone voice matters, even the people in the minority.  If its important to them, it is important to all of us

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Purple Pride in The United Methodist Church

As a loyal Vikings fan, I sat down on Sunday to watch the game and cheer for my team ... even though my cheers have no effect on the actual outcome (especially when using TiVo).  What surprises me, and actually what annoys me is that many of my fellow fans were choosing not to cheer, and instead were booing.  The difference between them and me was that their cheers, or lack there of, mattered because they were actually at the game.  Now, I am not saying the play of the Vikings on Sunday was worth cheering for all the time, or even maybe most of the time, but I am not sure that is the point.  To me a loyal fan is someone who supports there team.  A loyal fan who is at the game can actually have an effect.  My older brother was named MVP of a Vikings game in fact.  Technically it was given to all the fans but he was part of the end zone section that caused numerous false starts in a key play-off win against the Cowboys a decade ago.  While I think fans have a right to be upset, and really they can do whatever they want, but in my mind, if you are a real fan, and really want to help your team, then you cheer while you are at the game.  On the ride home you can vent all you want about the lack of creative play calling, the poor tackling, or who you would start as QB instead of Ponder.  During the game it is time for real fans to be cheering, making noise, and helping the team.

The same is true for those of us in the church.

Like the Vikings, The United Methodist Church is having some tough times and our "Super Bowl" record is about as dismal in the last fifty years or so.  I can understand if loyal fans of the church would rather be booing instead of cheering.  I am not sure however that the booing is anymore helpful to the church than it is to the Vikings.  Maybe it is because I am an optimist, but I think the cheering helps a lot more than the negative stuff.  Just as Ponder knows he screwed up when he throws an INT, most of us in the church know when we are making mistakes ... we need to be picked up, not picked on.

What does cheering look like in the church?

Obviously our work is not done in stadium bowls with vast roofs to amplify the noise, where the resounding shouts can both pump us up and make things hard for the other team.  Our work is a constant ongoing effort, week in and week out, Sundays and every other day and all of us need some cheering at times to pick us up.  We need to spend some time celebrating the good things that are happening and looking forward with hope, not beating each other up for things we don't agree on or don't like, or things we think could have been done better.  There is a time to focus on the mistakes, both for football teams and for the church, but too often we let our negativity and criticism spill over into times were we need to be upbeat, positive, and really believe that God is at work, maybe not helping the Vikings, but certainly helping the church to do great things no matter what the "score" might be.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When I Grow Up ...

Like most children growing up there were times I dreamed of being President of the United States.  I also remember consciously giving up on that dream at an early age.  I cannot tell you exactly when it was, but it was while I was still young.  I came to the conclusion that I could not in good conscience hold such an office because I would be required to be in charge of the military, and my first act in that role would probably be to tell everyone to go home, because I was, and still am, opposed to violence and war.  I recognized that this would be a conflict of interest because the President is responsible for the safety of our nation and I was sure that I could not order someone to go to war even if that was what was "best" for the country.  For this reason I don't envy President Obama and his current situation.  The United Methodist Church states in its Social Principles that war is incompatible with Christian teaching.  There is a strong pressure to elect good Christian leaders (Obama certainly faced a challenge on this) but then we expect them to do some of the most unchristian of things.  What if there is a better way to do this?

This morning I dressed my son in a onesie with a picture of Gandhi on the front and a tagline "Another skinhead for peace."  Bryce is now the second generation of Ozanne to wear peace-loving shirts long before he knows what they mean.  I grew up with shirts of MLK, Gandhi, and "you can't hug your kids with nuclear arms."  The struggle for peace did not start with my generation either.  My mother was fighting it too and it goes back long before then, as long as we have had wars I suspect there have been those crying out to find a better way to solve things.  I think our natural tendency is to respond with force but it is not the best one.  We cannot force people to love us, and until we love each other we are simply waiting for the other side to get a better weapon to strike us with, to find a chink in our armor, or a way to get an edge on us.  Mutually Assured Destruction kept us and the Russians at bay, but that fear people lived in was not a healthy lifestyle.  Maybe it is time we took steps so our next generation of children can dream of being a president AND being a peace-maker.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Misery Loves Company ... Reflections on McDonald's

Much figurative ink has been used detailing the challenges the church has faced reaching a new generation of Americans.  While the decline of the main-line church has been going on for 40+ years, recently the big focus has been on the movement of younger adults away from the church.  A great deal has been made recently about the changes in worship/spiritual habits of the millennial generation.  Given the frustations many of us inside the church feel at reaching this generation it was perhaps more than a little heartening, though maybe not surprising, to see that we are not the only ones struggling.  McDonald's, long a bastion of corporate health, though maybe not dietary health, has seen its ranking has a top destination for fast food decline among this newer generation of shoppers.  While there are a myriad number of reasons for this, I wanted to start by looking at some of the solutions they claim to have found ...

Fresh and organic food: Millennials place an emphasis on the importance of organic and fresh food. Fast-casual chains do well with the demo because many of them promote a fresh or organic message.
Variety and customizable products: In the food world, millennials appreciate the ability to build their meals from an array of choices. Chains like Chipotle and Subway do well in this regard because each item is made to order.
Social change: Millennials care about social issues and tend to support companies that are actively helping address problems across the globe.
Sustainability: Particularly with food, millennials value companies that are proactive with sustainable farming practices and are environmentally conscious.
Social-savvy brands: Brands that have active Facebook and Twitter pages and engage in conversations with customers tend to have more long-term support from millennials.
Since these are generalizations and so by nature easy to criticize, I would like instead to spend a moment thinking about how these translate to the church.

"Fresh and organic food" ... I see two very different ways to translate this into church parlance.  One way would be to look at theology.  Often in the church we tend to offer "canned" theology.  Sometimes it is from time honored recipes, like the Apostle's Creed or the writings of Luther or Wesley, but still maybe what people are looking forward is a chance to be a part of the process, to engage with thinkers from the past and create something fresh and new that comes from our own experience and location

"Variety and customizable products" ... one size fits all is a hallmark of the fast food industry, after all, simplifying the choices helps enable fast food, but it is also often a hallmark of the church.  Even when we offer a multiple choices for worship it still comes at just a few times and many of our offerings are limited.  Maybe what need to do instead is to look at more ways to encourage people to find what they need in the midst of the many opportunities for spiritual growth we have, mixing and matching between corporate and personal activities, missions and Bible study, tactile and auditory.

"Social change"  ... this seems like maybe the easier one of all to do.  I think the church only stumbles on this one in that we have often chosen to out source our missions/social change, hiring missionaries or writing checks instead of rolling up our sleeves and when we do get our hands dirty we don't do a good job of communicating about it, asking for more help, encouraging others, and doing ministry with each other instead of for/to each other.

"Sustainability" ... this is one we really should be focusing on more, especially as many dollars that could be spent on missions are going to heat over-sized, poorly used, and energy inefficient buildings.  I am not say we should raze all our churches and start over, but maybe we could be more serious about how we actively be stewards of God's creation (see Genesis 1).

"Social-savvy brands" ... I think this is a stumbling block for the church in part because our institutions are not geared towards being nimble and this ends up meaning we are pursuing, not leading the way when it comes to changes and trends.  I have still be around conversations where churches are talking about starting a website, or getting email, hardly the cutting edge of change, even for a decade ago.  We are hurt in two ways, one is that our membership is older and that tends to mean we are not up with the newer things because usually older people are happy with the older ones, its what worked for us.  Second, our training of pastors is hard to keep current.  When I was in seminary it felt like little was being taught or studied around the use of media technology in worship.  Why is that?  Because to teach at a seminary you usually end up needing to spend 10 years in academia, maybe with a few years in the field in between your Masters and PhD.  Staying current is hard to do when there is such a lag on the time between what you learned/experienced and when you are teaching.  We also only have a finite amount of time to learn and there is a lot of things we wish we could know more about, but little we really need to less about.

Once again, I am not sure I agree with these generalizations totally, but they seem to be a good starting place.  I also think it can be dangerous to try and translate things from the business world into the church.  I do know that like McDonald's the church needs to be reaching each new generation, because when we fail to reach one, it gets that much harder to reach the next as well.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

She Likes Me For Me

Recently Marianne and I have been watching the series "Big Bang Theory."  Given my own geeky tendencies and the numerous recommendations for the series I have been given over the years maybe we should have at least watched one episode earlier, but we haven't.  At present we have only watch half of the first season, so I don't claim to be an expert on it, but that doesn't stop me from writing about it.

One of the obvious tensions of the show is the geekiness/nerdiness of the main characters.  In particular, Sheldon is set-up to be clearly "different."  When the show was described to me before watching it I was told that Sheldon had Asperger Syndrome.  Doing a little more research I learned that that show's creator did not intend this to be the case and that any similarities in his mannerisms to those of someone with Asperger Syndrome are coincidental.  I find the effect of this knowledge fascinating.  As someone who has worked with several youth with Aspergers I have a soft spot for people with Aspergers.  For that reason my first inclination was to like Sheldon despite the fact that he is generally inconsiderate and highly self-centered. No where in the show is there any mention of what makes Sheldon different and it is clear the creator intended it that way.  Sheldon's friends have learned to love Sheldon despite his differences; not because they know he has XYZ (Aspergers, Narcissism, whatever) but because they are his friends and this is what friendship and love are about.  We the audience are called upon to do the same thing, to love him or not for who he is.

I think this is a great lesson and reminder when it comes to love and acceptance.  We aren't asked to make excuses for other people's faults, or to look for things to blame, whether it is something you can have a diagnosis for like autism, or something more general, like upbringing.  Instead we need to love each other, warts and all.  We cannot dismiss the things we don't like as being external to the person, but we need to accept them totally.  To do anything less just feels like cherry-picking.  Should we call on our friends, like Sheldon, to be better people, yes, but we have to do it out of a love that comes first.  Not a love that will follow.  We ask them to change not so that we can love them, but because we already do love them and we want the best for them.  It's what Christ would do ... or really what Christ always does.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We're Number Three! We're Number Three!

I recently saw an article about The United Methodist Church.  Among the details actually relevant to the story was some background info about the UMC, including the fact that we are the third largest denomination in the U.S. in terms of membership.  A part of me felt a certain amount of pride in the size of the UMC, as though it mattered, I had anything to do with it, or the fact that I picked my denomination based on size and not things like theology and the fact that this was simply the church I was raised in.  It felt good to be a part of the a "winning" team.

This week I have been reading the story from Genesis about the Tower of Babel.  What struck me as I read the story this time was that the reason God scrambles the language of the people is for no other reason than they are being too successful.  We are not told they are forgetting to worship God, or anything else, but a plain text reading seems to imply that the success itself is the problem.  God has a problem with success.

Maybe the problem is that once more we are failing to measure success in the right way.   We assume a civilization is successful when it is building huge buildings and displaying outward signs of progress.  What if that is not the right measure of success?  God might be worried that our focus on building bigger and better buildings might distract us from what really matters.  Maybe God is scrambling our language, not as a punishment for success, or for some other sin, but simply to reroute us towards more important tasks, liking communicating with each other and building community.

If community is meant as our measure of success than the scrambling of languages forces us to work more on how we are going to get along together with people who are not like us.  If we are all the same, community is easy.  We can just see the challenges facing our government and our nation to know the challenges of creating community when we are different.  To say nothing of the challenges of creating community across global cultures.  To put it in video game terms, maybe God was just turning about the difficulty setting because clearly things were to easy for humanity.

To stir the pot one more time, what if the real problem is that success itself is a red herring.  What if the problem is not we were focused on the wrong things, building structures instead of building community, but that we were focused on any measure of success.  We don't just need to switch from counting money to counting Facebook friends to see who is most successful, we need to realize that the very concept of success itself is flawed.  If we change how we measure success, we have reoriented ourselves to a new task, but we have still created the comparison between X and Y.  Maybe Y is now better than X because of our new metric but there is still a comparison.  What if God doesn't want the comparison at all.  What if the problem with success is that we are doing that which we are not called to do, judge.  We are creating a standard for what is good and what is not.  Instead we need to return to the original standard of the good, that which is loved by God.  God looked at creation and called it ALL good.  We tend to look at ourselves and try and determine what is not good.

It does not matter if the UMC is the third largest denomination or not.  The comparison itself is a flawed attempt to do what God has already done, judge.  We are like fans, screaming at the television upset with the call of the umpire because we see things differently.  Scream all we want about what is good and what is not.  God has already passed judgement on us, maybe we need to learn to live with that.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Coolness and Christianity

I recently saw an article about how Abercrombie and Fitch specifically markets too cool people and away from those who are not cool.  In particular it does not stock clothing in XL or XXL sizes for women since by their logic "cool/hot" cannot exist in those sizes.  Men are allowed to be those sizes on the assumption that big athlete types might need larger sizes and we all know athletes are cool.  On the one hand it seems like marketing genius ... cool people don't want to wear the clothes that uncool people are wearing so find ways to make sure only cool people can buy your stuff.  It also seems a little flawed, after all, uncool people have money to burn too, and as we learned from the Dr. Seuss classic about the Snitches, selling coolness to the uncool is a great way to make a quick buck.

Coolness can rear its head in the church as well.  The pressure to be cool, and to market to the cool kids of the world, has grown in the last few years as the overall decline of the church, and particular churches such as The United Methodist Church, means that we are starting to feel a little anxious things and looking for ways to grow.  One of the obvious ways is to get more of those "cool" kids to come to worship.  Cool is currently being behind in UMC (and probably most church circles) as young adult (ideally of the married, with kids, and maybe a steady source of income type).  [Side bar ... I am aware I am trafficing in stereotypes and apologize, I think they reinforce my larger point even if they are far from being universally true]  In an effort to attract "cool" a lot of churches have tried to figure out what we need to do to be cool.  We have not yet resorted to the risque ads of A&F which is a good thing.  We have however tried to figure out if changing our worship styles, sights, sounds, and even smells (coffee in worship anyone?) would help in making us more cool and thus more appealing.  The customer is always right as I have often been reminded.

Where I think we fall off the rails on all of this is that following God has never really been about cool.  In fact many would argue that some of the coolest moments to follow the church were potential some of our darkest (think Constantine and suburban 1950's).  If we look at figures in the Bible we are generally struck with how uncool they were.  Noah as considered kinda crazy by his peers (perhaps rightly so), Moses was only used by God AFTER he was an outcast, a murder, and forced to resort to shepherding.  Abraham and his wife were ancient before they started a family and Sarah's days of tempting rival rulers were long behind her.  Even Jesus lived the height of uncool, hanging out with tax-collectors and others of questionable moral character rather than being a good religious leader and only associating with others of an appropriate peer group.

Maybe it could better be said that to be a faithful Christian is to be uncool, to risk our coolness for the sake of Christ.  After all, our main symbol, a cross was meant ultimately meant as a mockery, the worst and least cool way to die and yet that is what we claim for ourselves.  Maybe what we need to focus on in the church is not what we can be doing to be more cool but what we can be doing to be less cool ... and more Christlike.  It might not win us popularity, or more funds, or even more members ... but it would be faithful to God, and that has to count for something.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Shakespearean Monkeys and the Internet

Before each sermon I give the following prayer "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, take my lips and speak with them, take our minds and think with them, take our hearts and set them on fire."  After one worship service, one of the worshipers cam up to me and asked why I said the prayer.  In particular they noted the idea of having God think for us.  To them it sounded distinctly like surrendering free-will and perhaps not the best thing to be doing prior to listening to a sermon.  As I heard their comments I realized how what I said was/could be heard in a totally different way than what I intended.  Since then I have been struggling to either better articulate what I mean OR find a different way to pray.

Here is one attempt to articulate what I mean by this prayer ...

We have all likely heard the expression that is given X amount of time Y monkeys with typewriters can recreate the works of Shakespeare.  Since if you expand the time to infinite there are a lot of things monkeys can do, but how in the world do you ever figure out when they have produced something that is actually worthwhile.  Someone has to go through all the failed pages of total gibberish to find Hamlet.  This is where the Internet comes in ... and perhaps that Holy Spirit I was praying for early.

It seems to me that the Internet is basically the equivalent of monkeys banging on keyboards (I include myself in this grouping).  Sometimes we come up with Shakespeare and sometimes gibberish (much of the gibberish can be found in comment sections).  The hard part is filtering through the unending stream of data available on the Internet to find the good articles, tidbits, and thought provoking pieces that are out there without having our brains turn to mush in the process.  It takes a certain skill set to take data from all over, synthesize it and come up with new thoughts and ideas from it.  Some of us have this skill and some of us need help.

I think the same is true when it comes to sermons.  I spend all week thinking, reading, trolling Facebook, and generally trying to wrap my brain around some concept to preach about on Sunday morning.  I find connections between the news of the world, scripture passages, hymns we sing, events at church, and of course cute stories about my son or the silly things I have done in the past (those are always popular).  Once I package this all together into either a cohesive message or at least some sort of stream of thought, all of the people listening to my message end up doing the same thing.  The words that I say bring your mind to something you saw in a movie last night, or heard over dinner, or a memory from childhood.  The connections and possibilities are seemingly endless, but what it takes is something to tie things together.

"Take our minds and think with them"

This line of the prayer to me is not asking God to take away our free will, it is asking God to serve like the Pensieve from Harry Potter and make connections for us that otherwise would go unnoticed as we strain to sort through all the pages the monkeys (pastors) have been making on their typewriters.

Maybe we can make some great connections on our own, but I for one really appreciate when the Holy Spirit gives me a helping hand.  It makes sermon writing and blogging a lot easier, and I am sure those of you who have to read my writing and follow my train of thought could use some help too (or at least that is what Marianne tells me).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

God is Dead but the Easter Bunny Lives!

I was watching the O'Reilly Factor last night and saw the teaser for an interview on a school in Alabama where they were not calling it the Easter Bunny anymore.  O'Reilly and his guest seemed to be sounding the clarion call that all Christians should be riding forth to save the Easter Bunny from a fate worse than death ... secularization!  Maybe I am overstating things a little bit, but it was striking to me that so much time was being spent agonizing over an aspect of Easter that Christians might actually be glad to get rid of.  I think the larger point that O'Reilly was trying to make was that this is one more way that it is okay to attack things which are Christian but not other things.  Of course one might also point out that Jews have never bothered to create a Passover Otter, nor is the there the Ramadan Raven for Muslims to have to defend.

Years ago, when Christianity was even more synonymous with mainstream culture we created these media friendly images like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and now we are being forced to defend them as mainstream culture moves ever so slightly (or dramatically depending on your view) away from Christian culture.  My question is this ... is the Easter Bunny really worth fighting over?  I mean, not only is it not at all connected to any theological understanding of Easter, but the term Easter is one we stole from another religious culture anyway, so we might not want to go making the term Easter too sacred either.

Holy Week is a time where we remember the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, it doesn't need a Hallmark friendly bunny to be more powerful.  In fact I think that by defending such secular images we actually weaken the message of Easter.  Ramadan is a powerful and important holiday because of how it is treated by Muslims, not because of some mascot that goes with it.  Easter can be powerful and important for Christians, but probably more so because of what Christ is doing, not the Easter egg hunts we are holding.  Is this what Christ lived for?  Is this what Christ died for?  Is this the new life Christ is promising?  Maybe if we focused more on those questions we might see some of the real changes we are looking for in society and more importantly in our own faith journeys.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Lent that Could Have Been

Because our calendar is 365 days, each year a particular date gets moved forward by one day.  If your birthday is on Monday this year it will be on Tuesday next year, and so on.  The exception to this is when we have a Leap Year and things move forward by two days, as was the case in 2012.  Today, Ash Wednesday, is February 13th.  But for the Leap Year last year it would be the 14th.  Valentine's Day would have shared its holiday with Ash Wednesday.  Not only would we have that seemingly odd pairing, but Easter, which falls on March 31st this year would have found itself sharing with April Fool's Day, creating another paradoxical sort of holiday.

Or maybe it isn't so clashing as it first seems.  Valentine's Day is about love, and relationships.  Ash Wednesday is about relationships too.  In addition to being a "Hallmark Holiday," Valentine's Day also becomes an easy opportunity for us to make up for some of the sins of the past year, month, week, or often in my case, day, when it comes to the relationship we have with our loved one.  A quiet meal, simple conversation, and of course a nice dessert go a long way to smooth over our previous transgressions and rekindle the romance in our lives.

Ash Wednesday is about a similar effort to rekindle romance.  This time the romance is between us and God.  We take the dried out old palm branches, reminders of that honeymoon like moment in our relationship where things were so amazing and burn them, creating ash.  We humbly acknowledge our mistakes, accept our sins, and mark our selves with ashes, a sign of penance.  Then we embark on a 46 day journey called Lent, where we try to repair the brokenness in our relationship and move forward towards Easter.

April Fool's Day is about trickery, deception and lies.  It is an instance of frivolity and mayhem, seemingly lacking any sense of solemn dignity.  How in the world is this anything like Easter, the high point of the Christian year as we celebrate the great triumph of Christ over sin and death?  While we have certainly made Easter into a high ceremony I wonder if it was really meant that way.  Maybe God has more of a sense of humor than we give the Divine credit for.  After all, isn't Easter the greatest April Fool's prank of all?  Jesus takes the worst that his enemies can give him and just when they think they have won he emerges from the tomb, stronger than ever.  In C.S. Lewis' depiction of Easter in Narnia, Aslan returns filled with mirth and romps and plays with the women before racing off to save others.  When Gandalf (arguably a Christ-figure in Middle Earth) returns he is also filled with joy and laughs deeply at various points.

When I first saw the calendar this year I was relieved to not have to deal with the tension of holidays falling on the same day.  The more I look at it the more I think we gain something by juxtaposing these seemingly disparate events onto each other.  At least it gives me something to think about.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Women in the Military

It was announced this week that the changes are being made that eventually should make it possible for women to serve in all or virtually all roles in the military.  My regrets on this are probably different than most people.  I regret all war and so opening up more people to the violence and harm that I believe combat is unfortunate.  That being said I think that denying someone a position solely because of their gender is a foolish thing to do.  Especially for the military where effectiveness should be the number one guiding influence, not what chromosomes they were born with.

My greatest hope for this is that it will help shift some age-old stereotypes about the differences between men and women.  There are obvious physical differences including how big and strong the different genders tend to be, but many of those differences can easily be overcome.  I have been beaten by enough female fencers to tell you that being bigger and stronger does not always help.  What cannot be so easily overcome is how we view, and thus treat the different genders.  Numerous comments were made in reaction to this move about the negative effects this would have.  While some people seemed convinced that women simply could not DO the work required and that the military would have to reduce standards, many more centered around two fears.  One was that men would be distracted by protecting the women and that the loss of female lives would be a larger emotional blow.  The second fear was that women POWs would be subjected to rape and sexual violence and that this would create its own problems (beyond the harm to the women).

What worries me about such fears is that it seems to place a greater value on women than men, which is probably rooted in the notion that women are to be protected like property, and not capable of their own care.  There is also an underlying assumption around issues of sexual violence that this is NOT happening to men (despite evidence to the contrary, even in US POW camps) and that it is NOT happening already to women who serve in the armed forces by our own side.  Sexual violence to POWs is a horrible thing and something that is very concerning, but not just because it might happen to women.  It feels like a horrible double standard to say that we should be worried about the rape that might occur women at the hands of our obviously unscrupulous enemy while ignoring the violence that occurs already.

Just as fighting and dying together helped the cause of integration between races, maybe the same will occur with regards to genders.  Maybe we will stop seeing men as strong and women as weak as more and more women are given the chance to step into the same roles as men.  I wish equality could come in a less violent way, but I am glad that in one more area everyone is being given an equal chance regardless of gender.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rooney Rule, MLK, and the Nominations Committee

There is a rule in the NFL called the Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any open head coaching position.  The rule was instituted years ago in an effort to break up the virtual monopoly of head coaching positions by white candidates.  There is renewed conversation about the need for the rule, and maybe reinforcing it this year after all the vacant head coach and general manager positions were filled by white men.  The conversation tends to center around the tension of not hiring someone based on their skin color, but still finding ways to make sure people of all skin colors have the same opportunities.

Often cited by both sides in such arguments is the quote by Martin Luther King, that people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."  While it clearly seems to speak against such quotas as the Rooney Rule requires, I am not sure that King would have been opposed to such rules.  Maybe fifty years ago the rule would have been needed to prevent owners from making racial motivated decisions for hiring.  I am not sure that the problem today is that candidates are being excluded because of skin color.  More likely it is a combination of two things, coincidence (it is a relatively small sample size after all), and the fact that people tend to trust what they know, and in a society that tends to still clump around lines like race and class, white people are going to tend to know white people, and black people are going to tend to know black people, and so subtly you tend to hire around those same lines, not because of racial motivations but more along the lines of habit.

A great example of this for me is the nominations process that has been going on at churches everywhere as we set our committees and leadership teams for 2013.  My experience of the nominations process is this, we either tend to look for the most obscure people (who is a new person we can get involved), or we tend to think about the people already in leadership positions, Mr Darcy is rotating off the trustees, with his fortune I bet he would a good person for the finance committee.  We don't mean to exclude people, but we tend to think about the people we know, the people we like, the people we are like.  The hardest part about nominations is thinking about the people you don't really know, and finding a good fit for them.

The really hard part is realizing the people you are missing ... because if you knew you were missing them you wouldn't be missing them.  One of my goals in college was to sit at different tables at dinner. There were a number of people who sat at the same table every night and in turn sat with the same friends.  By switching tables I would sit with different groups of people and thus broaden who I was connecting to and staying in touch with.  In turn the people who sat with me would experience a similar mixing as different groups of friends merged at this new location.

Sadly now that my college days are done it is harder to intentionally sit at a new table and meet new people. So maybe we do need "Rooney Rules" in our lives.  Not because we are racist, or sexist, or classist, but because without forced effort on our parts we will not live out the full meaning of Dr. King's dream, which is not just an end to racism, but an end to segregation, a dream of place where we all mix and mingle as children of God.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Wisdom of Downton Abbey

So like many others I am a fan of Downton Abbey and just watched the first episode of the third season when it aired last night on PBS.  In it the family that owns Downton Abbey learns that a substantial portion of its financial investments have been lost.  Suddenly the money that was meant to secure the future of Downton into perpetuity have vanished and we are left wondering what will happen.  The family is left to contemplate what it will be like to have to move from their stately home to a slightly less stately home.  Can the Earl of Grantham exist without Downton Abbey.

The parallels to the church seem striking to me.  First there is the existential question of separating ones identity and existence from the building that traditionally defines it.  What strikes me more however is the challenge around the financial problems.  The money was lost because it was invested poorly.  The investment was meant to make lots of money and secure a future for the great estate and instead it caused its ruin.  Certainly there is a tragedy in the loss that occurred, but maybe it was better that it was spent to try and secure a future instead of being squandered just plugging the financial holes to keep things afloat for the short term.  This is the real problem I think we face in the church.

Most churches have a great wealth of resources and a very uncertain future.  No matter how solid our financial situation might be this month, most churches would be faced with ruin if they saw a rapid drop in membership and giving.  Many churches are already feeling a pinch as shrinking numbers have forced tighter budgets and reductions in what the church can do to function.  The real wealth of resources comes not from the budget balance sheet, but from the members of the church.  Here are the real resources with which we do ministry.  Here too are the resources I worry we are squandering.  We worry too much about sustaining our budgets and sustaining our buildings (which are important) that we forget about making full use of our members.  Dollars and buildings are a means to an end, which is the mission of Christ to spread a gospel of love to all the world.

In Downton Abbey the Earl took a risk and tried to use the assets he had to build for the future.  I think we in the church need to do the same.  There are countless studies that point to aging membership of churches and the implied decline in membership that will happen as members die.  We are going to lose these great resources one way or another.  Maybe it would be better as a church if we took some risks and engaged our members in new ways to make use of their many gifts and talents for mission.  Instead of worrying about what the church will look like when they pass away and how we can sustain ourselves at that point, maybe we should be looking at how we fully engage our members now, which might actually take care of the second problem all together.  Even if it doesn't our churches will dwindle while living out the mission of Christ instead of dwindling while paying the heating bill.