Monday, April 14, 2014

The Seeds of Evil


Now that I am no longer writing for an audience of 4,000 congregants, primarily on topics relevant to  church spiritual life, I have a bit more liberty to write about a few of the topics that are have been of interest to me for some time, but I haven't had a chance to reflect on.  This week I want to think for a moment about the topic of evil.  More specifically, I want to reflect very briefly on;

The Seeds of Evil

Evil is a word that is hardly ever used anymore, even in churches.  When the word "evil" is used in popular culture it is often used satirically (e.g.: "that was an evil snowstorm," "the last hole at Augusta is the most evil hole on the course").  But of course, evil is a very real dynamic.  Though the Bible isn't exactly specific about the origins of evil, we know that a snake in the garden was possessed of evil, and helped to promulgate the fall of humankind.  We know that the Bible is specific about the existence of a devil, and that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, but how the devil exactly came about the Bible is vague about.  Most important, as Christ followers, on this Holy Week monday, we know that Christ conquered all the aspects of evil forever and ever on the cross.  The question I want to ask this morning is, "How does evil grow?" "Why does evil take shape in some people's lives and not others?"  What are;

The Seeds of Evil

I have recently been reading a biography of arguably one of the most evil people ever to live on the face of the earth - Adolf Hitler (the above picture is of Hitler as a child).  Hitler was responsible for the wholesale slaughter of millions of Jews, mentally challenged people, gypsies and vagrants (today we would call "homeless people"), and many others during World War II.  How did Hitler's evil take root?  Where did it come from exactly? It turns out that a quick look at Hitler's personal life reveals a depressingly fascinating recipe (or to carry the metaphor of this piece - bag of seeds) for evil.  Here's a quick bullet pointed list, with some of the seeds of evil underlined for emphasis:

*  Born in Munich in 1914 - in the context of a racist society.
*  There was a fever for war throughout Europe.
*  Hitler was beaten by his father at a young age.
*  Hitler's was abandoned as a youth when father and mother died when he was just 14.
*  Hitler was described as a loner in school, and socially isolated.
*  Hitler was rejected from art school twice.
*  Somewhere along the way, Hitler developed a kind of, "I am special narcissism".
*  Hitler was exposed to and encouraged towards anti-semitism in the hospital in WWI.
*  Hitler was exposed to gas in WWI and suffered mental neurological damage.
*  The remedy they used to cure Hitler of this damage was verbal abuse by therapists.
*  Hitler also experienced "shell shock", today known as PTSD.

This is just a short list of Hitler's upbringing and the context for the early development of his life.  However, if one were to list some of the extreme challenges Hitler faced, it is easy to see some trends and significant factors.  These factors, I believe, could be applied to any individual as a breeding ground or "seed bed" of the potential for evil.  One of them alone would be hard to overcome.  All of them together represent a very dangerous soil for seeds to take root:

*  A culture of violence
*  Traumatic loss
*  Abuse
*  Social isolation
*  Rejection/Shame
*  Narcissism
*  Hatred
*  Neurological Damage

These were the seeds of Hitler's upbringing.  These factors, combined, I believe can function as the garden bed, a richly fertilized soil, where seeds of evil can take root in any individual's life. Now, of course, many people have traumatic loss but do not become Hitler.  Many people were abused by someone close to them but don't turn into "The Furer".  Mandy people suffer from neurological damage or PTSD and do not commit genocide or terrible atrocities.  However, where you find several of these factors (or seeds) in a person's life, unaddressed or treated, there can be cause for great concern.

As Christ followers, we are called to be aware of the world around us, to understand the factors and the conditions in which we live.  When we see individual's who are more prone to, or have seeds of malfunction or evil, we are called to try to love them, to help turn the abuses around.  Christ followers are called to foster a culture of love not violence, gain not loss, nurture not abuse, fellowship not social isolation, connection not rejection, compassion and not narcissism.  In short, we are supposed to sow;

Seeds of Love!

All For Now,
GB


Monday, April 7, 2014

Snow Falling on Spruces


It is 7:45 in the morning, I am about to take my daughter Haley to school, I am sitting at my desk and I am looking out my home office window, and I am watching

Snow Falling on Spruces...

It is snowing in Colorado Springs on April 7!?!?  "I'm dreaming of a white Easter..."  But mostly I woke up this morning deeply grateful for my incredible journey with First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs which officially ended, as senior pastor, yesterday afternoon.

As the last member of the church made their way through a long receiving line to say goodbye to Star and I, at 2:00PM in the afternoon, I walked out of First Pres, with my pulpit robe thrown over my shoulder with a huge amount of gratitude.  As difficult as a call of the magnitude of First Pres can be, it is not the difficulties that I will take away with me.  My main takeaway will be the memory of a deeply loving congregation who is ardently, and sometimes desperately seeking God's will in their lives.

One exchange from yesterday will remain with me for a long time.  A 93 year old woman, who has been a member of first Pres for over 50 years peered at me from underneath the weight of a back that was bent with osteoporosis and time and said, "Graham, I was around when Howard Hansen (the previous, previous, previous pastor) of First Pres left as pastor.  I was sad then, and I am sad now.  You always reminded me of him.  I will miss you.  And I will see you in the next life."  Then, with the strong smile of a farmers daughter, and the focussed determination of a school teacher she said, "Now, get out of here, know that we love you, take care of that family of yours, and go have some fun!"

It's now 7:53 and I should take my nonagenarian friend's advice.  My daughter Haley needs to get to school before she and I get an "oops" sheet from her teacher.

Grateful!

For this church, this experience, this family, this life...and for...

Snow Falling on Spruces...

All For Now,
GB

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Church is for the World



For those of you who have been asking whether I will continue to write a blog post after this week, my last week as Senior Pastor at First Pres, Colorado Springs, the answer is yes.  I will keep the same web-address, and I would love to stay in touch!

This past week I have been battling a cold/flu/cough thing.  Actually, as I have spoken with literally hundreds of people this week, I am amazed at how many people have the same flu thing.  After hacking my way through the better part of the week, I finally broke down and got some antibiotics, and am doing better.  I recommend that if you are sick, you do the same.

Now, having taken these antibiotics - these magical little pills, penicillin, I am simply amazed at how effective this little invention is.  Underneath the red, sugar coated pills is a secret ingredient - mold.   We all know the story of how Alexander Fleming discovered that when these mold follicles were pitted against influenza and other viruses, the flu was attacked and nullified (picture above).  Penicilin was made for infection.  If penicilin is not applied to a sickness or a disease, it is useless.  Actually mold is quite disgusting in it's raw and basic form.  Just ask my refrigerator!

I have been thinking about another thing that is totally useless unless it is applied to the thing that it was made to help.  The church (and by this I mean, The Church, not any church in particular), is totally useless unless it is applied to the world.

The Church is For the World

When Jesus ascended into heaven on his fortieth day after being resurrected, he left the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Not long thereafter this, The Church was born.  Out of prayer and petition, and the moving of the Holy Spirit, the church was born.  We are told by Luke in the book of Acts, that in the upper room, where the disciples were praying, there were little licks of fire that appeared on people's heads.  At the same time, there was a Holy wind coming from God.  These things in and of themselves were interesting from an extraterrestrial, God encounter kind of way, but in and of themselves they were useless.  It wasn't until these disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, descended the steps of the upper room and went into the streets of Jerusalem that The Church was born.

The Church is For the World

Churches are complex organisms.  They are made up of people, and all people have problems (myself included).  Churches are made up of administrative systems that are important for the functioning of the church.  Churches are made up of leaders who strive to seek the will of God as they lead.  Churches are made up families, all which come with their own sets of marital difficulties, adolescent misbehavior, and juvenile developmental challenges.  Churches are comprised of financial boards and oversight structures.  Churches have staff leaders and lay leaders, each of whom have their own individual visions of what is most important.  Churches are complex!

But The Church was not meant to exist for these functions alone.  The Church was not meant to reside in the upper room.  Church was not meant to sit in a pill bottle on the shelf.

The Church is For the World

And the world has so many things that ail it.  The world is full of war, calamity, brokenness, heartache, disfunction, corruption, and just plain hopelessness.  The world needs what the church offers.  Church is the pill in the bottle that has to be opened, and applied to the sickness that it confronts.  Otherwise it remains a sugar coated moldy thing that has no use.

The Church is For the World

All For Now,
GB

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Unique


Not too long ago, I listened to a sermon from my friend Lloyd Ogilvie (I say friend, because my family and he have known each other for so long, but what I really mean is, "friend in Christ").  The main gist of Lloyd's message was that all people are made in a unique way by God and that all of us have a very unique contribution to offer to the kingdom.

Lloyd began his message by talking about how, when he took his first call in ministry (a large established call in the Chicago area), he felt quite intimidated to preach in the pulpit that he took.  The pastor before him was a legend in his own right.  Lloyd was then only in his 20's.  Though Lloyd had won the National Oratory Championship as a youth, and was a very gifted speaker in his own right, he felt un-equal to the task, un-able for the mission, I'm-perfect in the vocation of preaching in such a big pulpit.  Early on Sunday morning, many hours before church was to begin, or the sun had even risen on the horizon, Lloyd went on a morning walk.  His walk took him to a park, nearby to the church. Lloyd was not dressed in his characteristically sartorial splendor of Sunday morning, but rather he was wearing street clothes.  He was wearing on hood over his head on that crisp Sunday morning.  When he got to the park, he met a man who was sitting on a park bench.  Lloyd felt called to tell this man his woes.  "I have to preach in the pulpit down on the corner in about two hours time, and I feel totally unprepared (though I have prepared thoroughly) for the task."  The man sitting on the park bench said.  "Son, I am also a preacher."  Lloyd looked the man in the eyes and realized that he was one of the most famous preachers in Chicago (think DL Moody...or someone of the ilk, but not DL because he died in 1899).  DL said, "I have been preaching for years, and I have to preach to 5,000 people in two hours, and I feel totally unprepared as well."  Then DL (or someone of his ilk) said, "But son, I want you to listen to me.  God made all of us unique.  God made you in a unique way.  The message that you deliver in your church can only ever be delivered by YOU, because God will be speaking through YOU.  I could not deliver that.  Only YOU can do that.  So, I want you to go back and I want you to preach the best you can, to the glory of God."

Lloyd talks about what an impact that encounter had on his young burgeoning pastoral soul.

When I heard Lloyd's message I felt the same kind of liberation.  God made me in a unique way as well.  I am the only one who can carry out God's mission in the world in the unique way that I am able to.  And as I have been praying about this theme, I believe that all of us have a unique contribution to make.  Some people are preachers, others are teachers, others are bankers or accountants, or school teachers or business people, or writers or musicians or painters or homemakers.  All of us are made by God UNIQUELY, to do God's UNIQUE work in us.

To carry the point a bit further.  If we do not, each of us as UNIQUE beings made by God, carry out God's unique plans in us, then the world, the kingdom will be the lesser for it.  Let's put it this way.  God's plan, for the salvation of the world (literally the SAVING of the world) is to work through each of us.  God has done His work on the cross.  That work is finished.  But the continued work of sharing that good news falls to us.  God gave each of us UNIQUE ways of sharing that good news.  But we must do it.  We must not sit back and say, "I'm not as good as that person at the Bible," or "I'm not really very creative, God can't use me," or, "I can't contribute much," or "Let someone else do the sharing, I'll just relax."  That won't work.  God made each of us for His greater purpose, to be a part of God's greater purpose.  We are each:

UNIQUE!!

All For Now,
GB


Monday, March 10, 2014

Social



Here's a newsflash.  I get most of my really good ideas from two sources; God and David Brooks.  David is an opinion columnist for the New York Times, and God is, of course, God.  A week or so ago, David Brooks wrote an opinion column entitled "Archipeligo of Pain".  The article was about the extremely negative impact of social isolation. The article was an encapsulation of a book called "Social" written by Matthew Liebermann, a UCLA social scientist who teaches there.  Here is the gist of the argument:

Human beings need social interaction.  They NEED it, or else they will begin to fall a part, in every which sense of the word.  Social isolation has been used as a punishment mechanism in prisons for centuries.  Every year 80,000 prisoners in the United States are locked away in social isolation spaces (cells that are no more than 6 feet by 9 feet).  These times of isolation away from prison guards and other inmates usually lasts for 23 hours a day, and can last a week, a month, a year or even a decade.  What scientists have recently found is that extended periods of social isolation is equally as damaging to people's bodies, and psyches as actual physical punishment or torture.  People in extended social isolation often have the following symptoms: insomnia, organ depletion, heart failure, deep physical pain, agonizing migrane headaches, high blood pressure, bowel control loss, rocking back and forth, shock, blindness, hearing loss, insanity, and the sad list goes on.

So, here's what I have been thinking.  God knows that people, humans, need social interaction.  God wired human beings to be in connection with one another.  One of the most powerful activities that Jesus engages in in the Bible is reaching out to people who are in social isolation.  The demoniac named Legion, for example, who lived the tombs of Garadene, was totally isolated.  Nobody talked to him or gave him any attention.  Legion was going insane, living by himself in the middle of nowhere.  Jesus connected with him, cast out his demons, and made him well.  Most of the healings that Jesus enacts in the gospels are of people who, because of their physical maladies (leprosy, blindness, bleeding, paraplegia) have been cut off from normal social interaction.  Usually these people are in both personal and in social pain.  Jesus heals them, and reconnects them with society.  What Lieberman's research shows is that Jesus' desire to connect with people socially was a healing mechanism in and of itself.  Connecting with people socially actually healed them personally.

John Stott, the late 20th century evangelist and theologian said that church plays three fundamentally important roles in people's lives.   Church offers people connection to a higher power, it gives people significance and meaning in their everyday lives, and it offers people social connection (fellowship) with one another.  Stott viewed social connection as essential to a healthy person's entire being.

As a pastor, I have seen first hand the impact of social connection, and the power of the Holy Spirit in a person's life.  Every week in my Seeds Bible Study (10:30AM, Wednesday, Seeds Cafe, Colorado Springs), I encounter homeless people who have not been interacted with socially for a long time.  I will begin my Bible study, and then, one of them will raise their hand.  They will ask a question.  Sometimes the question is extremely insightful.  I will dignify their question, whatever it is, with the best answer I can muster at the moment.  This will happen week in and week out.  After months of this kind of dignifying social interaction, I can honestly say that I have seen people change.  They begin to heal.  Their thinking becomes more clear.  Their physical maladies disappear.  It is a living example of the power of social connection and the Holy Spirit in a person's life.

On a personal note, I have begun to realize how socially isolating it can be to be a pastor of a large church.  I am always, it seems, either working or hanging out with family (which is social in a way, but it is also not social).  Sometimes I can be so tired from work, or stressed out by a big decision, that when a friend calls on the phone, I don't pick up.  However, after reading Brook's NYT piece, I am realizing that picking up the phone call of a friend could be as important as getting a good night's sleep and three square meals a day.  So, I am trying to be more social, even when I don't feel like it.

What about you?  How does social interaction impact your health?

God made us for connection - with Him, and each other!

All For Now,
GB







Monday, March 3, 2014

Do You Have An Angry Car?


This morning, as I was driving my 5 year old daughter to school (my morning father/daughter bonding ritual), Haley said, "Daddy, you have an angry car!"  The question threw me off.  I wasn't ready for an automobile analysis at 7:45AM by the most inquisitive mind in my life.  "Your car, the front of it, the headlights, it just looks angry," she continued.  After dropping my daughter off, and looking at the headlights of my 2012 Toyota Camry, I had to admit that she was right.  A Camry is a working man's car if there ever was one - Willy Loman's wheels incarnate - but my car did...look angry.

After getting home, I did a little research into the subject and I found out that according to autoblog website that, "consumers these days prefer angry and dominant looking cars, to cars that are happy or cheery or uplifting in appearance."  Take this picture of the brand new Danish roadster the Zeno STI (enclosed with this blogpost).  This car definitely looks angry.  So here's my question to you;

Do You Have An Angry Car?

And why stop the question with our automobiles?  Do you have angry clothes?  I am told that as people live further and further towards the East Coast, rather than the West Coast, the amount of clothes that a person owns in the black color scheme grows exponentially.  Military gear and camouflage has become a common style that can be seen everywhere from high school playgrounds to fashion runways in Paris.  Is military gear angry?  Does the building that you work in look angry?  Marketing executive from McDonalds Restaurants work very hard to use warm red and yellow colors, to have children's playgrounds, to have insignia that looks friendly (the golden arches look like two big smiles, turned sideways).  McDonalds does not want an angry looking building.

Does the college that you attend look angry?  If you visit any college campus around the country, it is easy to detect the buildings that were built in the 1960's.  They are usually large cement blocks that have very few windows and have lots of pillars underneath them.  These buildings were reminiscent of military fortresses.  I lived in one of these dormitories at Macalester College that was built in the 1960's.   Rumor has it that college officials everywhere in the 1960's worried about whether students would attempt to take a building hostage (like happened at Kent State or Berkeley), and actually built buildings that could not be fortified.  The 1960's were the era of the angry college buildings.

This rather simple and silly question, "Do You Have An Angry Car?" raises for me a deeper question about how sometimes things that are out of our control (cars, clothes, buildings) can actually shape the way that other people perceive us.  Maybe rising tensions in the Ukraine, for example, could be nullified if the tanks the Russians drove actually looked less imposing.  What about tanks that looked like Volkswagon bugs?

What about church?  Do you have an angry looking church?  When I was pastor of Highlands Church in Paso Robles, the church building that we had built for us (by the Presbytery of Santa Barbara) actually looked like a barn.  This rather diminutive image of a building, a barn, worked in our favor in a town where people often thought of church as a domineering or imposing place to attend.   Initially our building was a source of ridicule.  "Ha Ha, you guys worship in a barn."  After a while though, we even capitalized on the image.  We said, "Welcome to the Barn," "Come to Church in the Barn."  On Christmas we had themes about how our God was, "Born in a Barn."  People loved it.  Nobody felt intimidated by a barn.  We did not have an angry looking church.

Who would have thought that a simple question from a 5 year old on the way to school would foment such a blogpost from me?  Maybe I will paint a smiley face on my car for when I pick up my daughter later this afternoon, and see if my car can get any happier.

All For Now,
GB










Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bridging the Generation Gap


Late night television has just embarked on a bold experiment.  The experiment boils down to a question.  Can a very old and storied television show, "The Tonight Show", which has older viewers (median age 67), a very storied history, and a tradition of legendary names (Johnny Carson, Jay Leno), begin to attract new younger viewers?  There are also two catches;  many of the younger audience don't even watch television (but rather read their newspaper online and catch their video on you tube), and many of the older viewers go to bed before the show even begins.  To carry out this experiment, NBC is putting all of it's hopes and dreams on one young man - Jimmy Fallon.

The "Tonight Show" is one of the most famous brands in television.  Beginning in the 1954 in New York City, the show has had luminary names connected with it; Jack Par, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno.  Chevy Chase tried to take the show for a while and flopped.  Joan Rivers occasionally hosted the show when Johnny Carson was not there, and struggled.  Carson invented the medium of the show (monologue, interview behind a desk, and musical guests).  The show has had countless spinoffs.  The most famous example is CBS's competing show hosted by David Letterman - "The Late Show".  Many other replicas have been attempted but didn't make it; Arsenio Hall, and Conan O Brien, are just two that come to mind.

NBC seems to be banking on several specifics that they feel will help them win new viewers while at the same time hold onto older ones.  The specifics include:

1.  A Kinder Gentler Host; Jimmy Fallon is less of a snide, tough comedian than he is the sweet school boy who is just trying to give it a go.  In his first show a couple of Monday's ago, Jimmy said, "I just want to try to take the show for a while, and do the best job that I can."  Jimmy introduced himself on the first night of his show by saying, "I am 39, I live in New York, I am married and I have a brand new baby." (The crowd seemed to eat it up)

2.  Many Traditional Markers;  The show has returned to the same theater that Johnny Carson first began in.  The set of the show is very traditional, even cold in decoration.  The stage resembles more of a "Leave it to Beaver" set than a plush hotel room (Like Jay Leno's).

3.  Musical Features;  Jimmy Fallon sings a lot on the show.  He is actually quite talented.  Just a month ago, Jimmy did a Bruce Springstein impression that was almost totally dead on.  The guy has musical chops.  The idea is that music can bridge generational divides.  Jimmy also does a dance routine.

4.  Deep Respect for Elders;  Jimmy is regularly paying homage to the people who came before him.  This seems sincere from Jimmy, not a put on.

5.  A Very Self Effacing Style; Jimmy is always poking fun at himself.  He is almost always the butt of his own jokes.  One time recently, Jimmy said to musical legend, Paul McCartney, "I love you so much, you are so amazing."

So, why am I dedicating this entire blog post to the "Tonight Show"?  Simply because of this.  I believe that many of the challenges that face the "Tonight Show's" success also face the church today.  I must hasten to add that church is not a show, not even close!  However, the same tensions exist between the Tonight show and worship.  They exist between an older congregation who once had legends in preaching leading it (Lloyd Ogilvie, Earl Palmer, Bruce Larson), and a younger congregation who tend to read more "apps" on their I-Phones than they read church bulletins.

To be honest, I sometimes feel a bit like Jimmy Fallon when leading worship at First Pres, Colorado Springs.  On the one hand I know that I need to pay respect and homage to a great group who have come before me.  On the other I know that there is a younger group who are slipping through our hands even as we speak.  I try to offer musical selections - I sing, and play the piano, (which, in the same way also seems to bridge the generational divide).  I try to preserve traditional markers when they are appropriate (the robe on Sunday, the old hymns).  I try to offer a self-effacing style that is perhaps kinder and gentler than previous styles, but also winsome.  Hey, people even sometimes tell me that I look a little like Jimmy Fallon (compliment to me, not to Jimmy:-).

The church, as we know it, should never be the institution that puts it's finger in the wind and determines it's future based on the fads, styles and tastes that are popular at any given moment.  On the other hand, the church should also never be so disconnected from the styles of the world that it forgets where people are.  The church that neglects to "Meet People Where They Are" is definitely doomed to failure.  More importantly, as the church attempts to bridge the generational gaps that divide our culture today, healthy examples like the "Tonight Show", which have been around for more than 60 years, may just offer a few answers.

Go Jimmy!

All For Now,
GB