Monday, November 24, 2014

The Weekly Church Checkup


This past week, I visited the dentist.  Full disclosure, because of our family's move to a new state, and various other reasons, it has been a little while since I have been to the dentist (like maybe a year).  The good news is that all of my teeth and gums are still in good working order (sorry this blogpost for some will feel like a little bit "too much information" - TMI).  The bad news is that leading up to my visit, I was quite nervous.

I usually brush my teeth regularly, but on the days leading up to my appointment, I began to brush them a lot more.  Like three times a day.  I flossed extra.  I made sure I was eating healthy snacks.  I reduced my sugar intake greatly.  I bought extra tooth polisher, and tooth whitener.  I even fluoridated my teeth on my own.  I did a whole lot of things leading up to my dental visit that I would not normally do, because I was nervous about the prognosis and the outcome from the dentist.

The thought occurred to me that many people, who have not attended church in a while, view visiting a church, with the same kind of nervous preparation.  People who haven't attended church for a while will often do extra prayers before they attend, read up on their Bible, get their outfits in better shape, work extra hard on presenting their entire family in a best possible light.

People who haven't attended church in a while are often nervous about what the encounter will be like. Will the pastor tell me I need to do more work in my personal Christian "whitening" practices?  Will I get beat up in the sermon, for not eating the right spiritual foods?  Will the prayer time feel like a spiritual root canal?  Will I be given a lecture about how I need to floss my soul more regularly?  Will my visit to church be painful?  Will it be unpleasant?  Will it cost me a lot of money, since there may be a lot more spiritual surgical work that needs to be done?

And so, many, many people decide that they would rather just do without church, or God, or spirituality because they are worried about…

The Weekly Church Checkup

The truth is that some churches are a lot like a dental practice in the pain and guilt that they inflict on people who haven't visited in a while.  I will never forget one church that I attended on occasion while I was a college student in Minnesota.  When school first began, I went to church every week, but as the semester progressed, my attendance became much more fleeting. One morning I woke up, after a bit of a "crazy" (I was a college student after all) Saturday night.  I told myself that I just needed God, and I needed church that day.  What I could not face would be the phalanx of church people who would give me on the way in.

Sure enough, I was greeted at the door by a prying dental hygienist of an usher.  "Well, well, well," she said, "we haven't seen you in while!  Where have you been all this semester?" "Busy," I said. "You look like you might have been out last night.  Kind of a crazy night, hugh?"  "Not really, thanks for the bulletin. I'd like to sit in the back."  "Those seats are all taken, there's a few in the front row," she said.  As she guided me down the isle to my seat right beneath the pastor (not so different than being in a dental chair), I felt the glares of those who had perfect spiritual hygiene.  As I sat down, she whispered, "We have a new program for college kids like you, who haven't attended church in a while, would you like information?"  "Not really," I said.  "Well, here's a brochure on how to keep your spiritual heart free from decay."  I left wishing I hadn't come at all.

Church shouldn't be a weekly checkup, but a weekly affirmation of God's love in our lives.

Mission Street is striving to be that church.  Our two main mottos are:

Come As You Are, and
No Perfect People Allowed

All For Now,
GB








Monday, November 17, 2014

The Flesh Became Word


One of the most central theological themes in the Christian faith is that; "The Word became Flesh" (John 1:14).  The basic meaning of this is that at the beginning of time, there was this etherial, not tangible, non-contained power in the universe.  That power was God.  One of the three-fold dimensions of that power was known as "Word" - "In the Beginning was the Word".  Word or (Logos) has traditionally been thought of as the pre-human form of Jesus.  It is essential for Christ followers that they believe that this etherial power, God, then  became human (flesh) in the form of Jesus.  That flesh  "dwelt among us" (John 1:14b) for 33 years, then died, and then came back to life again.  But that's not what I want to write about today.

What has been on my mind is that in many ways, we can think of this central dictum in it's opposite form.  Just as the "Word became Flesh" with Jesus, so, when Jesus ascended into heaven again, in a very real sense;

The Flesh Became Word

What this means is that when the Spoken Word (The Bible) is uttered, God is brought to life.  When The Bible is preached correctly, with meaning, and truth and grace and hope, there is, in a sense, a living Christ among us.

The Flesh Became Word

I learned from my preaching professor at Fuller Seminary this past summer, Dr. Will Willemon, that the word Theology - literally translated "Theo - Logoi, literally translates as "God Speaks".  I used to think that theology simply meant the study of God, but it really means, "The words of God," "The voice of God", "The utterances of God."  It can also mean "Speaking about God."  When we speak about God, we bring life to God, and we are theological.

The Reformers, Jean Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox and others firmly believed in this central maxim.

The Flesh Became Word'

They believed in it so fully that it compelled Luther to advocate the mass production of the Bible in people's own languages, and dialects.  Luther believed that the Word should be in the hands of the people.  Knox knew that without public education, the "Word of God" would be misinterpreted, misunderstood, misappropriated.  So, he wanted people of all economic backgrounds to be able to read for themselves - the Word.  Knox wanted the Flesh of God made into Words in the very hands of all people.  Calvin placed the reading of the Word in the very center of church - from a central lectern.  This is why, today, in most churches, the sermon is still the central part of the worship service.

This basic truth gave new meaning to my preaching and speaking on Sunday mornings, when I discovered it.  To be honest, I still have a hard time fully believing it.  Taken to it's extreme, it means that whenever a pastor speaks in a worship setting about God, correctly, lovingly, truthfully, it is equivalent to God speaking Himself.  That when  sermon is preached, it isn't just a good point that is made, a thoughtful reflection that is offered, a helpful concept that is shared, but rather that there is some sort of Godly conveyance taking place.

The Flesh Became Word

This basic notion also has profound implications for all of us.  Whenever we share hopeful things, truthful thoughts, graceful kind words to others, we are also participating in the Flesh Becoming Word.  Whenever we share the truthful, loving, story of Jesus in our own lives (not someone else's story, but our own), we quite literally bring Christ back into the world through the utterances that come from our lips.  And, the opposite is also the case. We also have the potential and the possibility of speaking Words that aren't Godly.  Words that cut down, make small, hurt, inflict, belittle, and curse, eradicate the power of God from the world.  Hurtful words have the impact of removing the Flesh of Christ from the World.

Let's Bring Christ Back into the World this Week through our Words.  And then we will be able to see for ourselves that:

The Flesh Became Word

All For Now,
GB




Monday, November 10, 2014

Flex


I don't know about you but the stack of book ideas that I have to write that I just don't have time to write continues to pile up.  Either because I am so busy with being pastor of a church, or because the amount of research needed to write these books will take so much time, or for other reasons, I just don't'have time to write all of the books that I feel need to be written.

For example, I have thought, for some time now, that someone needs to write a book entitled; "Distances and Times in the Bible".  Though the title of the book may not be a best seller (you can work on that), the content seems important to me.  We often underestimate the amount of time it took, and the distances traveled in the Bible.  For example, when the Bible says, "Jesus then went from Galilee to Judea" it doesn't give the impact of the distance traveled by Jesus and the disciples.  The trip from Galilee to Judea is a good two to three day journey over rocky, arid, and mountainous land.  Jesus and the disciples must have been totally winded after those journeys.  No wonder the Pharisees were so annoying to deal with at the end of a long journey.

Another book I don't have time to write (but maybe I will someday) is the main focus of this blogpost:

Flex

The full title could be, Flex: How God Works Best in the Lives of Flexible People

A lot of energy and time has been spent on the best way for Christ followers to prepare their hearts to receive God's grace, mercy, and fruit.  Many authors have pondered the exact posture that the human heart must assume in order to be most useful to God.  The bookshelves filled with books on, "Listening to God's Voice", "Deep Contemplative Prayer," "Having a Holy Heart" are numerous.  My big new idea is that, while all of these factors are important, they are not the most important thing.  And here it is.  Flexibility is the key!  God works best in flexible hearts.

Flex

By and large the disciples were highly flexible people.  Anyone who has gone on a fishing trip knows that the key to being a good fisherman has:

Flex

Flexibility.  Some days you may catch a fish or two, some days you will not.  Some days the morning will begin with sunshine on the water, and then storm clouds will begin to form and the torrential rains will begin to fall.  Some days your fishing lines and nets will work perfectly, and then, all of a sudden, they will catch a snag, or a hole will emerge in the net, and you have to spend the whole day mending the nets.  I believe that Jesus knew this as he was walking around the lake of Galilee and when he said to Peter and Andrew and James and John: "Come and Follow Me!  I will make you fishers of men!"  The fact that the disciples left their fishing professions right there and then, shows just how much they were able to:

Flex

Some of the most powerful stories of conversion in the Bible are really stories about flexibility.  Take the story of Zacchaeus for example.  Here was a very wealthy and corrupt man who had more money and power and wealth than any person could ever hope for.  But then he met Jesus, and was moved to the core to;

Flex

To become flexible in his heart.  Zaccheaus gave back 4 times the amount he had stollen through the years, and he followed Jesus.  The other rich young ruler in the Bible, who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God, and was unable to be flexible, to give back his money.

There is a reason that Jesus was so drawn to the ministry contributions of women in the Bible (Mary Magdalene, Salome, Mary and Martha).  I believe it is because, basically, when it boils down to it, women are more flexible than men.  Of course, women in general are much more physiologically flexible than men.  But I believe they are also more spiritually flexible as well.  While I don't have the scientific data to back up this basic point on this Monday morning, one example of this is that women tend to live longer than men after their spouses pass away.  If a wife passes away first, the chance that a husband will live on much longer is around 20%.  On the other hand if a husband passes away first, the chances of her living long after her husband are well about 50%.  Women are more flexible after periods of change and loss in their lives.  Somehow, they are more able to pivot, to mold, to alter, to change to:

Flex

Having just started a new church development here in Camarillo three weeks ago, I can say without hesitation that flexibility is the key to success in a new church.  On any given Sunday, the speakers won't work, the security guards are being persnickety, the computer system is down, the offering plates aren't in the place they should be, a key leadership person gets sick, or what have you.  The successful new church is able to:

Flex

On second thoughts, maybe I should be more flexible and write this book after all:-)

All For Now,
GB








Monday, November 3, 2014

Climbing a Mountain


My late Scottish uncle, Ranald Graham, always offered great advice and had a deep inner wisdom about life.

One time when I told him that I was afraid of heights - that I had the tendency to feel a little dizzy and scared (I suffered from vertigo) when I stood at the top of a very high mountain, or a very tall building, he had great advice.  Ranald said; "The difference between not feeling scared when standing on top of very high places (buildings, mountains) and feeling scared, is whether or not you have climbed them yourself or not.  If you climb a mountain yourself, you will never feel scared when you get to the top of it.  If you climb the stairs of a very high building, you will not feel dizzy on top.  If, on the other hand, you take a helicopter ride to the top of a mountain, or you take an elevator to the top of a building, you will often feel frightened of the height at the top."

This advice, on it's face, may seem crazy.  But try it, I have found it to be true.

When I was in college, I had a summer job at an oil refinery.  One of my very dangerous tasks that summer was to climb the ladder of a very tall smoke stack (like 500 feet tall), and to reach out at the top and paint orange protective paint on the pipes that suspended high above the earth.  Given that I have always been afraid of heights, I was petrified of this task.  But once again, Ranald's advice proved to be true.  When I climbed the stack, rung by rung on the ladder, and got to the top, I was less afraid than if I had been dropped on the top of the stack by a crane.

In both cases, what I think Ranald was alluding to was the basic notion that when humans invest themselves deeply in the ascent of high places, they somehow know intuitively how to get to the top, and how to get to the bottom.

Uncle Ranald's advice has proven true not just for mountain climbing or building scaling, and smoke stack scrambling, but also for life in general.  I have always been a little suspicious of people who rise in life to quickly.  Politicians, business leaders, executives, even pastors who go from the ground floor, if you will, to the top too quickly can often find themselves in a perilous place of leadership.  Not having had the arduous task of putting one step in front of the other to get to the top, leaves the leader actually not appreciating the amount of work and effort it took to build the business or political empire.

Former Congressman John Dingle of Michigan once offered a few thoughts about our current President - Barack Obama (don't worry, this is not a political blogpost, but let me offer this illustration to make a larger point).  He said, Obama just rose too quickly too soon in his political life.  Having served only 2 years in the Senate, before he ran for President, he didn't ever really learn the difficult and intricate process of governing.  Had he waited a few more years to run, and to learn (to climb, if you will, the mountain of politics, rather than be dropped on the top so quickly) he would have been a much more effective President.

Yesterday morning was our second Sunday for Mission Street.  It was a wonderful worship service!  Really special.  People were so fed by the worship music, prayers, message, etc.  Our attendance was 60 (which, by the way is 20 more than I was hoping for).  As the leaders were assisting with worship, we were all aware of the climb we were all making in starting a new church.  It's one step after the other.  It's one bend in the road, and view point after the other.  It's a beautiful journey.  And because we are climbing the mountain ourselves, we won't find that we are dizzy, or afraid of the view, when the summit is reached.

The climb is the journey.  The climb is essential.  Being on top is not what is important.  How you get there is.  The journey is important.

Climb away!

All For Now,
GB








Monday, October 27, 2014

In The Beginning...


One of my favorite passages in the Bible is it's very first sentence - Genesis 1:1.  More specifically, one of my favorite groups of words (four of them), are the first four words in the Bible:

In The Beginning…God

These four words establish that at the very beginning of creation there was one singular and all powerful presence - God.  There weren't other forces competing with God, or other dominions.  All that there was at the beginning was - God.  Also, we know that the very nature  of God is "goodness" and "love".  So, there wasn't any evil as we know it.  It was all "good" and all "love"

Actually, even though we call the chapter that these words come from - Genesis - for the Hebrew people the book of Genesis is known as - "In the Beginning" (Bara - Sheet).  For centuries rabbis have opened worship services with these four words:

In the Beginning…God

All good things must begin with God at the very center of them.  God is the force that brings all things into focus, into order, into creation, into life.

Yesterday, Mission Street Church was launched.  And if we were to establish four words with aptly sum up our new church's launch, it could be these same four words:

In the Beginning…God

*  God was there for the nearly 200 people who attended

*  God was there at 5:30AM as I loaded the first trailer onto the back of our car

*  God was there at 6:00AM when the first trailer was cracked open, and a team of 5 met to unload, even as the sun was still hidden behind the horizon.

*  God was there at 7:30AM when 10-15 volunteers arrived to help set-up church in the movie theater

*  God was there at 9:20 when people arrived to worship at Mission Street for the first time.

*  God was in the midst of the worship music that was so incredibly played by the Bel Air Street Band

*  God was in the welcome announcements so energetically offered by Dee Harrison

*  God was in the bagpipe band which played Suo Gan - an old Welsh hymn

*  God was in the Lifewater International conversation with Sada Andrews

*  God was in the welcome time in the atrium of the Edwards Movie Theater, as Panera Coffee was consumed and Sprinkles cupcakes were devoured.

*  God was in the message that I offered about the parable of the Lost Sheep, and how God's main purpose, as is our main purpose, is to leave the 99 behind and to go after the 1.

*  God was there as people filed out of the movie theater (theater 6) with beaming grins on their faces, many of them saying, "This is fantastic!  I love it!  This is what I have been looking for for such a long time.  Thank you.  See you next week."

In The Beginning…God

And God Is Good!
All The Time!


All For Now,
GB

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can I Get A Ticket?


A friend of mine just asked me a pointed and good question: "What am I most looking forward to this coming weekend as we launch our first worship service for Mission Street?"

The question was one I had to think about for a moment because there is so much that I am looking forward to:

*  I'm looking forward to many friends and family who will be coming from all parts of California to see one another again and worship together.

*  I am looking forward to leading a New Church Development once again, a kind of church experience that I just feel I was made to be a part of and to lead in my pastoral calling.

*  I am looking forward to the Bel Air worship band, led by Liz Brackenbury, a broadway singer and a deep woman of faith to lead our music.

*  I am looking forward to the Gold Coast Bagpipe Band, one of the best bagpipe bands I've ever played with, to open and close the worship service.

*  I am looking forward to throwing a huge party (Sprinkles Cupcakes included) for God.

*  I'm looking forward to the raw energy and initiative involved in hauling two trailers full of equipment from a storage unit, to the back door of a movie theater at 6:30AM, leading a one hour worship service, and then, tearing it all down again in less than an hour.

*  I'm looking forward to interfacing with an incredible handful of sound, light, camera production and and tech professionals who are such a gift to Mission Street.

*  I'm looking forward to meeting in a space to worship God that has absolutely no outward vestiges of religion and ecclesiastical infrastructure.

And the list goes on…

But the thing I am most excited about is that a few of the people who will be coming this weekend have absolutely no concept of what a church is, or who God is, or what the whole thing is about.

For a couple of months now, I have been getting coffee at a small coffee shop here in Camarillo.  Each day, I have just gone into the coffee shop and bought a coffee and talked with my friend who is the lead Barista there.  This past week, I decided to take a risk and tell my Barista friend about our new launch of a church, and to invite him to our opening service in the movie theater.  I had no clue about how he might respond.  To be honest, I thought it might be the end of our relationship.

To my surprise, he was elated.  "Oh wow!" said my friend, "This is amazing."  "I love it."  And then he asked me a question that I will never forget.  "Do you think I could get a ticket for this new worship service?"  "A ticket?" I asked.  "Yes, this sounds amazing, I really want to come, where do I buy a ticket for the service?"  I was flabbergasted.  My friend actually thought he needed a ticked to come to….church.  "You don't need a ticket.  Just come," I said.  "But I want to make sure I get a seat, how much are the tickets, where do I buy one?"  "You don't have to buy a ticket, just come," I said.  The man was insistent.  He needed a ticket.

For a moment, this exchange almost literally broke my heart.  This man was so excited for this new church, and wanted so badly to be a part of it, and was worried that he might actually miss out.  And maybe this man's entire life-frame of reference was that everything in life that is of any worth has to be purchased, it has to be bought, you need a ticket for.

I was about to tell him that admission was free, but then I thought twice about that.  In a real sense, admission to church is not free. It's not free for any of us.  God bought our admission to church, to new life, to eternal life, many years ago on a cross. He bought it with his life.  So, in a real sense, my friend,. who has never been to church before, was quite correct.  Perhaps this total outsider knew more about God and theology than I did.  Admission is free but we do need a ticket - that was bought for us a long time ago.

Then, I looked at my friend in the eye and said, "There is just one more seat available, and it has your name on it.  I will save a seat for you.  I have your ticket."

My friend was brimming with happiness and appreciation.  And so should we all be, who worship God week to week.  We do need a ticket.  And we have one.

If you are in the area, I will see you this coming weekend at the Edwards Movie Theater, at 9:30AM in Camarillo.  If you live afar, then please pray for us!

All For Now!

GB








Monday, October 13, 2014

How I Pray


I should begin this week's post with a huge disclaimer.  One of my worst Spiritual gifts is the gift of prayer.  I'm not just saying this to sound humble, or to try and draw you into this post.  I am truly awful at prayer.  And this blog post is all about prayer.  So, if you happen to be an "expert" prayer, please read no more.  But if you are like me, and CS Lewis I am told (Lewis thought he was a very, very poor prayer, even though he prayed all the time), and you are awful at prayer - then continue reading.

It's not that I don't try to pray, or work at it, or do it a lot.  Also, like CS Lewis, I don't pray to change God, but because I need to be changed.  I need prayer, God doesn't.  I pray for myself mostly.  I'm pretty selfish in my prayers.  I need to grow in the area of praying for others.  So, these are my basic forms of prayer:

I pray "micro prayers" on the way to work, or while driving Haley to school.  "Lord, be with this day."  "Help Haley to have a good day."

I pray "nervous prayers" on Sunday morning when I first wake up before I preach, "God, help me in my message."  "Help me to help people today."

I pray "confessional prayers" almost every day.  These are almost always the same, "God, forgive me for all the ways I have fallen short.  Be with me.  Help me.  In Christ's name, Amen".  I don't bother listing out sins that I have committed (unless they are really big ones).  I know God already knows my sins, and repeating them again and again to myself can have the effect of making me feel bad.  Also, the list would go on forever, and who has the time (Luther figured this out, and it is what led him to the Reformation).

I pray "angry prayers".  Sometimes I even cuss in angry prayers.  "Lord, I'm really ?!?!?!?! !?!? off right now.  !?!?!."  I know that God has already heard such language before by far more spiritual people than me (AKA:  Jeremiah - "Dear God, The nation of Israel is a whore" Jer. 5:7).  I have never actually cussed at God, or to God in my life, except once.  I still feel bad about it.  We were trying to do a big kick-off worship service in San Antonio, Texas, and on Sept. 26, it began to snow.  Snow in Southern Texas in September!  I was really, really angry.  But I shouldn't have said that to God.

"I'm sorry God, for that, forgive me!"

I pray "agenda prayers" before every meeting at church, "Lord be with this meeting, as we talk together about the need to really work hard together as a team, especially as it relates to our first song set of our worship service this coming weekend…"

I pray "couple prayers" every evening after our two girls go to bed.  Several years ago, Star and I decided to begin praying every single evening as a couple.  At first, it seemed a little strange (to be honest), praying out loud with my wife.  Prayer feels like such a personal thing, and to do it out loud feels a bit like practicing the lines of a play while waiting in line at a supermarket.  After about 7 years now of praying every night together, we wouldn't let an evening go without it.

My most favorite prayer time is what I call, "presence prayer".  These are prayers that are more extended, at night, when everyone else goes to bed.  These I usually do on my knees, kneeling before the couch.  I will sometimes also have had a glass of wine.  Sometimes I will put on some music with my headphones.  My favorite recent selection is Lisa Gerrard singing, "Now We Are Free" (Gladiator theme music).  In my presence prayers I try to just "Be With" God.  I don't try and listen for any choirs of angels, or profound voices that ring out in a stentorian roar, (for example: "Graham, turn back!")  I don't bring a laundry list of problems to God.  I just try to be with God.  If God were in the room with me, I would pour Him a glass of wine and just sit.

My prayers are not eloquent.  They are actually really bad prose.  The most eloquent prayer I know is Mark Labberton, President of Fuller.  Labberton's prayers are like the poems of William Butler Yeats.  My prayers are like a bad rap song.

My recent big idea about prayer is that when Jesus gave us the model prayer (the Lord's Prayer), he meant us to say it - a lot.  When I pray the Lord's Prayer, I say it in my own words:

Father
In Heaven
Holy is Your Name
Your Kingdom is Coming
Your Will is Being Done
Here on Earth As in Heaven
Give Us Today Our Daily Bread
And Forgive Us our Debts
As We Forgive our Debtors
You Lead Us Not into Temptation
But You Deliver Us From Evil One
For Yours is the Kingdom
And the Power
And the Glory Forever
Amen

How do you pray?

All For Now,
GB