Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hall of Fame Weekend: Phony and Real Leaders

Some who call themselves the leader are, in fact, not. For example, in family systems theory, often the true leader is not the one who has the overt, official title or role. For example, many women were actually the leaders and the "quarterbacks" of their families, even though males may have had the higher status culturally.

In systems like churches, it is interesting to see who the real leaders are. They are not always the ones who tout it and shout it. In fact, these folks may be more insecure than really confident in their own sense of leadership.

My gold standard of leadership is very similar to what Marty Shottenhiemer said when he was coaching his first NFL team, the Cleveland Browns. He said the greatest of all coaches are the ones who are, first of all, able to see a future Hall of Famer and then, to assume the responsibility for this potential to be realized. If the player is supposed to make it to Canton, Ohio, then the greatest coaches make sure that destiny is fulfilled.

Leaders are true developers and know how to maximize the folks around them. They encourage, not coerce. Their love for people shows because they respect others. More than their idea of leadership. You are blessed if you get to be in ministry with such a leader. They are truly rare indeed.

John Maxwell can write fifty more books on leadership, I don't care! If I could choose to be the kind of leader that Marty described, I would, by God's grace and gift.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Death, Hammer Chords, Amazing Endings and Such

I know death is not really in vogue. That's part of the reason we have "Celebration of Life" services instead of memorials or funerals. But like the hammer chords in a symphony, death is the finale from this life. And death can be for life what hammer chords are to great symphonies.

This morning one of the first things I did was to air Beethoven's 8th, the symphony with 20+ hammer chords. It sort of sets the record for such in music history. Thanks to Bob Dugan, former music teacher, band director at Horace Mann Middle School in Lakewood, Ohio, I first heard this amazing ending in 7th grade and have loved it ever since.

As a Christian pastor, one gets way above average exposure to death and grief. The story of each ending is punctuated by hammer chords which speak of life, not always just painful, often helpful and healing, consummating the parts of the symphony which may have not made sense, tying the whole together in a way that transcends our judgments and labeling. Or reasoning it out: "It was such a blessing" or "It was God's will."

Maybe this gift can only be seen and received by those closest to, most intimate with the departed. I think of the story of Jesus and Mary in the garden. In the Gospels, most all of Jesus' appearances after Easter were to those closest to him. Our discomfort or fear, as well as our distancing from death easily deafens our ears to the hammer chords sounded by the end of life.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Spirituality of Shattered Dreams

The pain of disillusionment is equal to the level of false expectations we allow. If the spiritual life was presented as a one-size-fits-all formula for success, then, everything that requires effort and presents a challenge could be an occasion to throw in the towel. Whether we are talking about marriage, church membership, or Christian discipleship, pain is relative to the extent that our expectations are connected to reality.

Hebrews 11 helps us to see the Old Testament story through the colors of death and resurrection, not in terms of promise and fulfillment. That's because God's promises can always be twisted to address whatever I want. Taken together, Moses, who didn't enter the land (see Deut. 34), and David, who didn't build the Temple (2 Sam. 7:1-7), and Jesus, who wasn't delivered from his fate (Luke 22: 39 ff.) represent a strong biblical theme missing in the shallow faith of name it and claim it churchianity. It is the forgotten message God offering resurrection in the ashes of our dreams, our disillusionment.

When I entered full time ministry twenty five years ago, I had hoped that my prior student pastorates "would count" in future appointments. That somehow, I could skip the "Plum Run" or "Turkey Switch" churches because I had already pastored an isolated, isolating rural parish.
I quickly learned that the system doesn't look at such considerations. Instead it needs folks who will take what is offered the first time, or perhaps suffer the consequences later. Or folks who make a decision fairly early on what their ministry is going to be about. That is intentionality.

You can't change the system but you can define and re-define yourself with the gifts God has given you. There is a great need in the church for truth telling instead of false build-ups, whether it's a church appointment or the Christian way of life being sold. Do ya think we could save some pain, do less harm, if we just told folks the truth about suffering the death of our dreams, and through those tears, seeing the resurrected One? The One who alone offers new life beyond our wants and wishes?

Monday, July 21, 2008

What's Simple about Being Christian?

That's what Tom Wright addresses in his 237 page volume, Simply Christian.

What I appreciated about the book:
  • The metaphors used and explained, i.e., baptism (pp. 212 and following).
  • The positive view of the Old Testament/Israel as informing our reading of the New Testament/Jesus, not the other way around.
  • The centering of Christian faith on gratitude as response for what God has done. (p. 209)
  • The discussion on the New Creation was excellent. **
What I did not appreciate:
  • Started slowly; length. You would expect a book with simple in the title to be briefer and "simpler."
  • Written by clergyperson for church persons?
  • No Index was provided, this aspect took away from the reading.
**"Resurrection doesn't mean going to heaven when you die." (p.218) and "...God did for Jesus at Easter what he is going to do for the whole creation." (p.236). At death, there is an interim period when we are with Christ (call it heaven), but after that interim, a new bodily life is given within God's new creation, the new heaven and earth.

Simply Christian lends it self to a group study/discussion of 6-8 weeks and could be used with a variety of audiences, probably more with groups of seasoned believers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Getting Off the Ride!

Cedar Point in Sandusky Ohio...I remember trying in vane to shout to a ride attendant, "Stop this ride, or I'm gonna heave!!" The pace we live sometimes gives us a feeling of denying instead giving life. My mother, the 85 year old R.N. who has taught childbirth and grandparent classes for the last 25 years, has the right prescription.

If we are currently doing nothing to really to care for ourselves in terms of diet and exercise, take thirty minutes a day out to do some that engages you and that you enjoy. This doesn't include vegging out in front of the T.V.The other thing we can do is to do something that relaxes us before going to bed. Something that prepares us simply and easily.

These are two practices that almost anyone can begin with ease. You can start it right where you are!


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Lousy Night to Be An Atheist Indeed

While last night might have a bad night for atheists who happened to be watching the Home Run Derby, I found Josh Hamilton's record first round of homers incredible. His references to God's grace in the interviews which followed (which I didn't hear about until earlier today) is something I hope we can all claim for ourselves.

If the atheist has trouble explaining the grace operative in human life and all of creation, then Christians are those who should be shouting it from the rooftops. If the atheist is challenged to see life as gift instead of chance, then Christians could be world leaders in gratitude.

It's sad that we often impose limits when speaking of the vast and inexhaustible grace of God. Our words betray this whenever we say, "There but the grace of God go I." Does that mean that, due to whatever calamity or hardship that has happened to someone else, they are therefore outside of God's grace? And we who are in God's grace are quite fine, thank you. Instead we might more honestly say, "Better them and not me!" Really, why bring God into it? It would also allow grace to be bigger than we are.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Using and Misusing the Name

It is about more than ugly, angry, hateful language. That's bad enough. One of the many things I like about the CEV* is its translation of Commandment #3: Do not misuse my name." (Exodus 20: 7) While taking the name Christian, #3 is also about the way we use the name of God, especially the ways we "bear false witness," or misrepresent God, Jesus, and Christian faith by our actions and our attitudes.

It is here that I often turn to I Peter 4:17 and the sense that God's judgment begins with God's own people, with those who claim God's name. I find that especially helpful when the question about who's in and who's out are inevitably raised (usually by those who think they are inside).

So claiming the name is tied to covenant keeping, and responsibility. Otherwise, we tend to be very flippant with God's name, using it to bless actions both individual and corporate that may be in disharmony with our words.

*The CEV (1995) usually keeps me from misusing the Bible, which is why I like it. For example, in John's Gospel, "Jewish leaders" is used where most other translations use "the Jews." (John 20:19) To me, The CEV's translation seems to make more sense when reading the New Testament narrative.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Marx, Micah, and Drugs of Choice

Is it religion that is is the opiate of the people or are opiates the religion of people (Micah 2:11)? Either one is not a very high view of religion.

When religion becomes an opiate, we call it by its right name, "feel good faith." If that is the main purpose of my spiritual practice, then it is probably true that my religion, for me, is an opiate, something which helps me to feel good in my pain. Or to ignore, deny, or run away from it. Love of God and neighbor? That would come after the primary goal of feeling good.

In a similar way, Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah (6: 14) and Micah were critical of the kind of religion that only smooths over, doesn't rock the boat, and deals lightly with human wounds of spirit. The problem is that such leadership offers to heal wounds "lightly," while our brokenness is anything but an abbreviated experience. We want to forget about it and not have to think about it anymore. That's what "feel good" faith does for us.

Feeling good, however, is not necessarily the opposite of genuine faith- not at all. It is just not the aim of the Christian spiritual life. Growth toward loving God and others as ourselves might deliver us from confusing faith in Jesus with drugs of choice. There is a religion of glitter, a self deception of claiming the name of Christ only, as in "Christian." Spiritual well- being includes healthy self-awareness- and seeing what kind of impact your faith has on others.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Words We Don't Hear in Church

Did George Carlin go PC- or did he just get the last laugh? One fine day about 15 years ago, I was watching "Thomas the Tank Engine" with my young son. "Thomas the Tank Engine" was a wonderful program for young children but narrated by none other than Carlin himself! Carlin surely got off- at the "dazed and confused" generation's expense- on a really weird bit of irony! With my thanks to blogger Martha Hoverson over at, what are some of the words you can't say in church? I am a child of the 60's and 70's and enjoyed Carlin's satire which often pointed out our own idiocy and hypocrisy. You can, of course, think of Carlin's original seven words as now being a little more acceptable in the general culture.

To twist it the other way, there are some words we regularly hear on the news and in general that we just don't hear much in church: torture (ironic that Jesus was a torture victim). Another is global warming (thank you P. Johns). While we drive to get another one at Starbucks, food vs. fuel would be a phrase that we could add. And thanks, in part to Starbucks, fair trade. Other phrases would be the adverb buying, with any number of nouns, such as buying humans (slavery). Closely linked to buying is war profits. Yet another is corporate greed. We could name more, but these are the start of a good seven.

Why are these words used everywhere but don't seem to be part of the general discourse of church settings? "What we have here is failure to communicate." (Cool Hand Luke)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Words that Really Don't Work in Church

There are a few words that I have heard that I would not use, under any circumstances, and this has nothing to do with being politically incorrect, and everything to do with basic human decency. I wouldn't use any word that ridicules, threatens, or dehumanizes others by their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or national origin, disability, or really, for any other reason. The joke I thought was cute wasn't worth telling because it was demeaning at least.

Again, I have heard different epithets used from a variety of American pulpits, and guess what? Even if the word was used to prove a point or as a confessional, the result of shock and regret did not really justify it. Words do harm and in these cases, more harm than any possible good. Even if it may be somehow cathartic for the speaker do it, there are other ways of confessing and for good reason. Most of them are not in front of the Sunday morning crowd.

I have also heard preachers tell all in such detail that they had lost me and surely others. I feel you do not have to subject others to this kind of pain. Doing so reflects a troubled spirit. You can be authentic without causing everyone else to freak. You can be honest by also being considerate, leaving enough space in your words for others to see and name their own darkness.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Who Defines Transformation?

Church nomenclature has transformation as one of the the latest and worn out expressions. Does anyone know what we mean by it?! Is there a possibility that anyone unconnected to church life knows what we are talking about? Transformation is term thrown around that has New Testament roots (Romans 12:1-2) and bears a close similarity to repentance or metanoia, a change of mind. If you are thinking in Hebrew, the word is more like a change in direction, a 180.

Not all "life-changing" experiences are favorable or positive, so transformation by itself could be seen as an empty expression. We need to ask what is being transformed, by whom, and for what purpose? If it is to be socialized for the dominant culture and church replete with the cultural idols of violence, nationalism, and affluence, then that is an entirely different meaning from the New Testament sense. Who defines transformation? If our way of measuring it is only the happy trinity of budgets, butts in pew, and buildings, then how is that transformational?

It seems that any honest use of this word should begin and probably end with repentance. It means a basic change from the normal human pattern of wanting to create gods in our image to serve us rather than to be shaped by the One and Only. At the least, transformation in Jesus is surrender to the One who is not boxed by our gimmicks. Much more, God challenges the folks who constantly use the Name for their own ends.

Oldies but Goodies