Monday, May 25, 2015

A Beautiful Mind



On Saturday afternoon, one of the great minds in the field of mathematics, quite literally in the history of the world -  died.  While driving with his wife Alicia in the back seat of a taxi cab on the New Jersey Turnpike, John Nash (the main character in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" - Russell Crowe's character), inventor of a form of games theory - "an extension of games theory based on the randomness of an individual's maximization of benefits" - and recipient of the Nobel Prize - died.  In a somewhat inexplicable car crash, (vaguely reminiscent of the end of another transcendent and tragic figure, T.E Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia" - who crashed on a motorcycle after being lifted to the heights of fame in World War I) Nash's cab driver was trying to pass another motorist, and ran into a guard-rail and another car.  The couple were killed instantly upon impact.

What Nash will most likely be known as much for, after his death, will not only be his mathematical accomplishments, but his lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Largely because of the Oscar winning movie about his life, John Nash's descent into the depths of mental illness are well known to the world.  John Nash's unravelling from brilliant mathematician into the depths of schizophrenia, paranoia, delusion, electroshock therapy, random postcards to friends, and unintelligible mathematical formulas scribbled on chalk boards on the Princeton campus are well known to all of us.  (As a side-note, many years after Nash's recovery in the late 1990's, I can still remember seeing John Nash eat lunch in the Princeton Seminary cafeteria, while I was a student there.  The lunches at the seminary were pretty good!)

But that isn't what I want to write about this morning.  What I want to write about is how Nash eventually emerged from mental illness.

Surprisingly, according to Nash, it had nothing to do with the medication he was taking, the electroshock therapy, or his institutionalization.  Nash's recovery, again according to Nash's own memoirs, had to do with two things:

1.  Time
2.  A Decision - to return to rationality

"I simply decided that I was going to return to rationality.  I emerged from irrational thinking, ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging."

These two factors,

1.  Time
2.  A Decision

are so exciting to me as a pastor and a person who works with people through various stages of psychological, interpersonal, spiritual, and chemical challenge.  So often when people come into me with a problem, the desire is to instantly be transported from a place of pain and difficulty to a place of total health.  But this is almost never possible.  Taking the time to work through the processes of loss, heartbreak, anger, and biological makeup are invaluable.  Making a personal decision to not be bound anymore by that thing that binds us is also essential.

Victor Frankl made a similar personal discovery when he was an inmate interned in Auschevitz Concentration Camp in world War II.  What Frankl knew that he had control over, was only one thing, himself, and his decision, his "choice" to survive.  That was it.

Many years ago, a friend of mine who had been struggling with a chronic illness, visited a pastoral counselor that I know.  After months of discussion about how the debilitating illness was a daily struggle, the pastoral counselor said to the woman one morning, "Jane, this morning I want to try something new.  I want to encourage you to pretend like you are are a healthy person.  Live your life like you were healthy rather than a person who has a chronic illness.  Just do the same kinds of things that a healthy person would do with their life."  Miraculously, over time, my friend returned to near perfect health.

1.  Time
2.  A Decision

It would be a great disservice to the many thousands of people around the world who suffer from inherent, intrinsic, unalterable psychological maladies to suggest that we can simply "think" our way through illness.  Psychological illness is the same as any other kind of illness (cancer, heart disease, a virus), it is a thing in and of itself that must be treated with the best medicines, vaccines, and therapies possible.  However, in the end, it is often our own decision about how we will deal with the challenges that each of us face, that makes the difference.

One time when encountering a man who had been sick for over 40 years, Jesus, in a moment of reality and grace asked the man, "Do you want to be made well?"  The man said, "yes, but every time I try to get into the Sheep Gate pool, someone dives in before me - (AKA - I am deciding to live in the world of irrationality)"  Jesus responded by saying, "Get up and walk!"  (AKA choose, after 40 years now, to return to the world of rationality and health).  The man walked!

And we can too!

All For Now,

GB


Monday, May 18, 2015

It's OK To Get It Wrong


Let me begin this blog with a question.  When was the last time you shared your faith with someone else? When was the last time you told someone who is not a Christ follower about how important God is for your every step, how God is a essential to your every move, about important Jesus is in your daily life?

 If you are like me, the very mention of this subject brings you a bit of internal fear.  As I have spoken with people about sharing their faith with others over the years, a usual set of anxieties invariably comes to the fore:  "What if I get it wrong?" "What if I do not say the right thing?", "What if an argument ensues?" and most of all, "What if I don't know the Bible all that well?"  But what I have discovered, after three New Church Developments, a stint as a College Pastor, and 15 years of ministry, is that the exact facts of the faith are less important than the conviction and the passion of the faith sharer.  And that, in the end:

It's OK To Get It Wrong

One of the most compelling faith sharing stories from he Bible is the story of Stephen's sermon before the Sanhedrin.  Don't worry if you don't know it, or don't remember it.  Stephen, one of the first Deacons of the faith, is standing before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and being asked to defend himself and his faith.  It's a beautiful speech and testimony (Perhaps one of the most beautiful ever given).  But it isn't perfect.  Actually most scholars think that Stephen probably made a few Biblical errors in his attempt to share his faith.

Not to beat up Stephen, since that is the opposite purpose of this blogpost, and since poor Stephen was already beaten up to the point of death by those who listened to him, but these may be a few of Stephen's Biblical errors.  Stephen says that, "After the death of Abraham's father, God sent him to the land where you are now living" (Acts 7:4).  But Genesis 11:26 seems to say that Terach (Abraham's father) was 70 when Abraham was born, and Genesis 12:4 says that Abraham was 75 when he left Charan.  This computes to Terach being 145 years old.  But Genesis 11:32 says that Terach died at 205, sixty years later.  Perhaps Stephen made a mistake...

Another possible mistake is where Stephen says, "After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy five in all" (Acts 7:14).  The Old Testament text from Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, however, says that there were not 75 but 70 in all of Jacob's family.  Again, did Stephen make a mistake?

What's quite incredible is that even though Stephen may have made some Biblical mistakes (although some scholars are in dispute about this), in the sharing of his faith, God still used it for great purposes.  Stephen's testimony has stood as a bedrock of faith for centuries of Christ followers and the Bible says that after his sermon, "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56)

It's OK To Get It Wrong

Not too long ago, I was offering a sermon when I made a mistake of my own.  I said that James, the author of the book of James in the Bible, was one of Jesus' disciples.  This, of course, is a mistake.  There were two James' who were disciples of Jesus (James of Zebedee, and James the Alphaeus) and  neither one of them wrote the book of James.  James, most scholars think, was written by James the brother of Jesus and later a leader of the Jerusalem church.  Incredibly, God used my sermon for good even though I made a mistake.  After the sermon, a woman came up to me and said that she wanted to make a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ and her faith.

It's OK to Get It Wrong

Of course it is optimal to try to get all of your facts correct when sharing your faith.  It's just that none of us is perfect and God can use all things to His glory.  So, don't be deterred.  Share your faith with someone who doesn't know who God is.  God cares way more about lost people than about precision of Biblical detail.  And if you make a mistake, remember, you will be in good company:-)

All For Now,
GB

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The McKinley Mistake


Here's a question to ponder:  Who was the worst President our country has ever elected?  The answer as to who was the best President, is much easier to answer.  The list of the best has many candidates:  Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are definitely right at the top.  But who was the worst?  Well, since I was a Political Science major in college (and forgive me for this little screed ahead of time) I have had some time to think about this question.  By many scholar's opinions, the worst President in the history of the United States, was a man by the name of William McKinley who served between 1897 and 1901, at the turn of the century.

Now, it's a boring conversation as to why McKinley was the worst President in US history, and it, of course, involves the usual elements: corruption, mismanagement, poor decision-making and lack of vision (to name but a few reasons).  The more interesting question is how McKinley got elected.  In the midst of much turmoil and transition in the country, McKinley was put in office by a hand-full of very wealthy oligarchs.  Known as the American "Robber Barons", a handful of some of the wealthiest people in the history of the world single-handedly and by insider maneuvering, placed McKinley in office.  Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon put McKinley in office in order to curb the Anti-Trust movement (breaking up large corporations that make money for a handful) from gaining further power.  Ironically, even the "Robber Barrons" regretted their decision in the end.

But why am I writing about this rather arcane and somewhat irrelevant American election in my blogpost this week?  Mainly because of this.  As we all observe the current American Presidential election unfold, it appears that the American Presidential election of 2016 will shape-up to be the most expensive and costly election in US history.  The last Presidential election between Romney and Obama totaled around $2 billion in campaign costs.  That's 2 BILLION with a "B" dollars.  It is estimated that the election between the two front runners alone, (likely Clinton and Bush) in the 2016 election will equal close to $4 to $6 billion.  Just to give you some context for how much money this is, the entire GDP of the country of Chile is around $4 billion.  Big money in politics does not equate to good leadership.  Let's not repeat the:

McKinley Mistake

Now, let me be clear, the super wealthy are often the key instruments that God uses to bring about incredible change and transformation in any community or group of people.  Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are helping millions of people around the world through their philanthropy and generosity.  Just today, the World Health Organization announced that the scourge of Ebola has now been eradicated from the country of Liberia, in no small part because of the largesse and the generosity of many very wealthy and generous Americans who have pitched in.  Remember that it was one of Herod's wives who helped to finance Jesus' ministry.  God uses all kinds of people to bring about the kingdom.

The main problem with the super wealthy, and the wealth disparity in decision making processes is that money tends to help some votes matter more than others.  An age old maxim of democracy is that, "A man's a man for all that," (Robert Burns), and that one vote equals one vote.  When it comes to making larger decisions and when big money enters the conversation, the room for the Holy Spirit to be able to work and interact and influence a decision making process diminishes.

One time, when Jesus was sitting in the temple after one of His sermons, He noticed an old woman make an anonymous donation to the temple coffers - a donation that would sway nobody's decision, and which would amount to her entire life savings, he said, "Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these (Vanderblits, Carnegies, and Rockefellers), put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had."

We should do the same,

All For Now,

GB

Monday, May 4, 2015

Facebook Church



Here's a confession to begin with.  I am not a huge user of Facebook.  When I was a pastor of a large church in Colorado, I didn't use Facebook because as a person in a very public "call", I wanted to preserve some sense of privacy in my personal life.  Now that I am in a New Church Development, to be honest, I just don't have the time.  But Mission Street has made a concerted effort to have a decided presence on Facebook.  Each week we have a team of people who regularly post videos, quotes, comments, pictures, sayings, thoughts, and queries on Facebook.  And what we have discovered is a whole new avenue and form of ministry that could be called:

Facebook Church

It is incredible how many people interface with Mission Street Church through Facebook.  Chances are you are reading this blogpost through a link on Facebook.  Last week we had over 700 viewers log-on to videos of messages that we produce in house and that are posted on Facebook.  The viewers who watched hailed from Denmark, Norway, Russia, Portugal, and China.  In one of the most exciting Facebook interactions in our church, one of our regular attendees became a Christ follower this past week, and rather than stand up in church to declare their faith (as has been done for centuries), they simply posted their newly discovered relationship with Christ on Facebook.

Many books have actually been written about this recent trend in church life.  Jesse Rice has recently written a book called, "The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community."

In case you aren't aware of the latest major conversation that is taking place in church circles (kudos to you if you aren't), according to some experts, there are two kinds of churches in the world: there are "Attractional Churches" and there are "Missional Churches".  Attractional Churches are those that seek to attract people to their church.  Attraction churches often feature the church building itself, the programming, the messages offered, the music program, the staff, or the general church ambiance as a way to lure people to a church.  On the other hand, there are "Missional Churches".  Missional churches seek to send people out.  They attempt to see a community as a mission field, rather than a future pool of attendees.  Missional churches are more diffuse, less easy to enumerate or define.  The weight and preference in recent years seems to have fallen upon the Missional church movement.

Mission Street seeks to be both Missional and Attractional.  We have many Missional elements: we meet in a movie theater on Sunday, we have Bible studies in restaurants, our office is in a public communal business space, our counseling appointments are often in coffee shops, and the list goes on.  On the other hand we have many Attractional dynamics: We send out postcards for big worship services, we have radio ads which invite future attendees to the theater, and we have fabulous music and worship ministry each weekend that we know for a fact people are drawn to.

But here's my question, what is Facebook?  Is Facebook Attractional or Missional?

On the one hand there is certainly an Attractional element of Facebook.  The whole concept of Facebook is who is your "Friend", how many "Likes" do you have, who is "Trolling" your Facebook page.  On the other hand, there is an element of diffuseness about Facebook.  There is a degree of "sending out".  On Facebook you send out information about yourself for the world, not knowing who will really be impacted by that information or what they will do with it.  It could be that in future years, people will drop the whole label of Attractional or Missional altogether.  Future churches, who seek to be relevant, might just seek to be a:

Facebook Church

Let me know on Facebook, if you "Like" this blogpost?

All For Now,
GB








Monday, April 27, 2015

Intentional Liturgy


A friend asked me recently whether Mission Street Church was a liturgical or non-liturgical church.  By this question, I think my friend meant, whether each week we go through a long proscribed pattern of worship structure which stems back to the time of Alexander the Great (312AD), and which some churches to this day follow assiduously and ritualistically every single week:

Call To Worship
Prayer of the Day
Hymn
Confession
Assurance of Pardon
Peace of Christ
Hymn 
Prayer for Illumination
Old Testament Reading
Psalm
New Testament Reading
Gospel Reading
Sermon
Prayers of the People/Lord's Prayer
Offering
Invitation to the Table
Great Thanksgiving
Communion
Hymn
Benediction

I grew up in a church that had a liturgical tradition like this one.  I can still remember, like it was yesterday, having one of the most senior elders of the church get up in front and start the worship service, while bending a screeching microphone closer to his three piece suite and pocket watch, through a gravely smokers voice:  "This is the Day the Lord Has Made, Let Us REEEJOYCE and be Glad In It.  Now Let us Worship God."

And I can remember like it was yesterday the confession that the whole church read each week, week in and week out as a group, in a somewhat monotoned voice: "Merciful God, We confess that we have not loved one another with our whole heart.  We have failed to be an obedient church."  And I wondered as a 6 year old what it meant to be an "Obedient Church".  I had a hard enough time being an "Obedient Kid"

And I can still remember saying the Lord's Prayer each week, with gelatinous little legs swinging from the wooden pew where I was sitting: "Our Father Who Art In Heaven, Hallowed Be Your Name."  One time I heard someone mix the words up to the Lord's Prayer in a somewhat touching way, "Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, I know You know My Name."

Mission Street seeks to do everything that we do with intentionality and purpose.  To this end, we have chosen not to follow a rote liturgical outline like the one I grew up with (though, of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such worship traditions).  Rather, we seek to do what we call:

Intentional Liturgy

Intentional Liturgy is a very precise focus on one aspect of the entire liturgical tradition throughout an entire message series.  Throughout the year, we will take sections of the ancient liturgical tradition and focus the entirety of the service on that one element.  For example, we are right in the middle of a sermon series we are calling, "Creed" about "The Apostle's Creed".  Each week we are intentionally parsing this ancient document down, word by word, and pondering the meaning of each syllibant.  And after the message we are saying, "The Apostle's Creed".  We feel that there is intentionality and meaning behind this approach.

One of the things we are mortally afraid of developing in our new church, is what happens in some church traditions with the repeated recitation of the ancient liturgy, week in and week out - ritualism and mantra.  The same way that driving a car is not, perhaps, as exciting or meaningful as it was when we first sat behind the steering wheel when we were 16 years old, liturgy can sometime lose it's excitement, meaning, purpose and relevancy, if recited week in and week out without thought or intentionality.

This coming Fall, we will do a series on Prayer in which we say the Lord's Prayer together during that series.  In the Spring of 2016 we will do a message series called, "Confession", and focus on personal confessions.  Who knows, one Sunday I might even pull out my old pulpit robe....

Or Not:-)

All For Now,
GB






Monday, April 20, 2015

Does Your Church Have PLANS?


Just this past week, a friend of mine asked me a pointed and direct question: "Is your church growing?"  I was a bit taken aback, but I responded by saying; "Yes, we are growing...we have been tackling many tough topics in our messages on Sunday morning."  "No," said my friend, "Is it growing?"  "Well yes, we had a great leadership retreat last week at a church retreat."  "That's not what I mean," said my friend, "Is your church growing in numbers?"  I figured out what my friend was driving at.  He wanted to know if our church was growing in numerical size.  "Yes, yes it is, I said, but that is not the only growth we are experiencing."

Usually when churches talk about growth they mean one of two things.  They mean growth in terms of Sunday attendance, or growth in terms of budget.  As one pastor once told me, "people vote on your church each Sunday with their butts and their checkbooks."  However, a better sign of growth is a quick acronym that I have recently developed, that measures more than butts in seats, and includes 5 areas of growth:

P = Pastoral Growth

No church can grow beyond its pastoral leadership.  Check that.  No organization can grow beyond its leader.  A pastor must model and lead growth in any church system.  If the pastor has a discipline problem, chances are the church has a discipline problem.  If a pastor has a money problem, chances are the church has a money problem.  If a pastor is learning and growing each week, the church will learn and grow each week.  This past week I did quite a bit of personal growth.  I learned how to build and run Pro-Presenter 5 (a writing program for worship services).  A healthy church needs to have the pastor or pastors leading and modeling growth.

L = Leadership Growth

No church can grow beyond its leadership.  This can involve all kinds of leadership: staff, elders, trustees, deacons, and volunteers.  The leaders of a church must also always be growing.  New ideas, new techniques, new disciplines, new skills, new thoughts, new inspirations.  A healthy church will also have a regular influx of new leaders, new volunteers, new directors, new elders, new deacons.  An unhealthy church generally has the same leaders rotating in and out of leadership each season.

A = Area Growth

You can always tell a really healthy church from the neighborhood and surrounding area around the actual church complex.  A healthy church not only is a great body of believers, but it impacts the surrounding community in positive ways.  The businesses around a healthy church improve.  The streets around a healthy church become more uplifted, are more economically robust, are more improved.  One of my favorite examples of this is South Barrington, Illinois, where Willow Creek Community Church is located.  Once a rural, sleepy suburb of Chicago, South Barrington is now one of the most robust neighborhood communities in all of suburban Chicago.  In a sense, the church brought the neighborhood up.

N = Numerical Growth

A church that is healthy grows numerically.  The book of Acts says that in the first church in history, the "Acts 2" church, "The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).  If a church isn't growing numerically, day by day, there is a problem.  Just as a healthy child must grow day by day, so should a church.  I have found that the reason that most churches don't grow is not because of a lack of friendliness, but because a church has an emotional or spiritual space that is being occupied in an unhealthy way by a handful of leaders who have always "done it a certain way." All churches are basically living organisms.  If a living organism isn't growing it either isn't alive, or it is being impeded in some unhealthy way from growing.

S = Spiritual Growth

This is the hardest dynamic to gauge.  Spiritual growth cannot be put on a chart and measured like a numeric equation or a set of numbers.  Spiritual growth is elusive and hard to nail down.  However, you know it when you have experienced Spiritual growth.  Have you ever had a really hard day, but you didn't really know why that day was particularly difficult?  Chances are your day had some Spiritual dynamic which made it very challenging to work through. Spiritual growth is hard to measure, but it's real!

So, those are my 5 indexes of a healthy church.

P = Pastoral Growth
L = Leadership Growth
A = Area Growth
N = Numerical Growth
S = Spiritual Growth

So, here's the question....Does Your Church Have....PLANS?

All For Now,
GB

Monday, April 13, 2015

What's Up With Starbucks?


Now that our big first Easter service is over (Easter @ the Stadium), and a week of reflection time has passed, not to mention recovery time, I am asking myself a perplexing question:

What's Up With Starbucks?

So, in an effort to get the word out about our Mission Street Easter service, I personally visited about 150 stores in the Camarillo area.  These visits are great opportunities for me, as a new pastor in town, to get to know more about the local economy, meet people, get the word out about our new church, and hang banners in the windows of stores.  Most of these encounters go something like this: "Hi, we are having an Easter celebration at the stadium, can I hang a banner in the window about it?"  "Sure, what is it for?"  "Mission Street Church, a brand new church starting, we are in our 25th week, and our main theme is No Perfect People Allowed."  (After scanning the banner and seeing that it is attractive enough to hang) "Sure, sounds good, hang it over there."  For about 148 of these establishment visits, the encounter was very easy, kind and engaging.  Ironically one of the unfriendly places I visited was a Christian potpourri and teddy bear store.  A vast majority of these stores were kind, and welcoming.  I even got a warm reception in several cigarette and liquor stores.

However, when I visited Starbucks, the epicenter of culture and conversation, I received a different answer.  "I'm sorry, we have just received a corporate memo that no religious banners can be hung in our stores."  Noticing that every other type of banner (lost kittens, Relay for Life, a taxidermy advertisement) was hung on the clip-board next to the waning CD collection and peppermint gum, I asked, "Why?"  "Don't know," said the manager.  "I guess it's an attempt at being more religion neutral I guess."  "But this isn't really a religious banner, it's more of a holiday celebration recognizing the divine power of life in the world through a God who loves us," I attempted.  "Sorry," said the embarrassed manager, "No churches!"  And so, I left with my banner and a burning question in the back of my mind:

What's Up With Starbucks?

Several years ago, I attended the video site of Willow Creek's Global Leadership Summit.  The CEO and founder of Starbucks Coffee, Howard Schultz, was slated to speak.  We were all excited about hearing about Schultz's radical and captivating vision about transforming America and the world into a community of coffee shops.  Right before he was to speak, Schultz issued a public and declarative statement that he would, in fact, not be speaking at the Summit because of Willow Creek's position regarding same sex marriage and relationships.  Remember, The Summit is the same place that Bono, Condi Rice, Bill Clinton and David Gergen had spoken.  And the thing was that Willow didn't really have a public position on same sex relationships.  Though the church demurely and quite mutedly is conservative on the issue, they have never made a big deal about it or even spoken much about the topic in any pubic forum.  It was clear that Schultz and his team were looking for a venue to make a widespread public declaration about religion and society.  And everyone left the conference with a burning question:

What's Up With Starbucks?

It is clear that Starbucks has become a culture forming bastion of new American culture.  The tell tale green and white insignia signs can be seen in cities, and every street corner literally around the world.  Starbuck's management style, efficiency, pensions benefits, and even interior design (most architects and interior designers immediately know what a person is talking about when they say they want a "Starbucks feel").  Starbucks has, of course, become something so much more than just coffee.  The question is what is that thing?

Are they furtively forming a cultural community that is totally separate from faith and belief systems?  Is it a neutral coffee house where any conversation is acceptable except conversations around questions of religion and God?  Is Starbucks attempting to create a kind of utopian notion of society and culture that is totally separated from any notion of God, but rather bases itself on a different kind of holy Trinity all together: Grande Late, Bran Muffin, and Coffee Mug?  As a faith leader, who is generally open to conversations with people of any religious perspective or opinion, I am forced to ask a basic question?

What's Up With Starbucks?

How can any institution, who seeks to re-form a culture, neglect the central role of religion and religious expression in that conversation?  The great 19th century social philosopher, Alexis De Tocqueville, a man who studied and understood American culture perhaps better than any other once observed; "Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other."  In less than 100 years after this basic notion was observed, has American culture really changed so profoundly, or is it obliquely and obtusely being transformed away from religion and faith issues by corporations like Starbucks?

Don't get me wrong.  I will still regularly visit Starbucks and order my weekly fix of a - Grande Cafe Americano with Soy, and a Sausage Breakfast Sandwich (I have my priorities:-).  But I will do so with a growing sense of unease about an institution that seeks to guide and form a new way of life for an entire generation of young Americans.  A Venti Machiatto without whip or God...

All For Now,
GB