Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Torn Asunder


Not long ago, I went to one of my favorite restaurants in Burlingame.  It is not a famous or a fancy restaurant, but it does serve consistently great food.  Surprisingly, though, on this day, the food was not up to the standard that the restaurant usually served up.  The meat was a little over done, the vegetables were also overcooked, and the presentation wasn't particularly inspiring.  What to do?  Should I put this restaurant in the "bad box" - and not ever return to that restaurant again, or should I just chalk it up to a "bad day" - the kind that all of us occasionally have?  I decided on the latter.  A week later, I went back to the restaurant, and the food was as good as usual.

Similarly, I went to a movie recently from one of my favorite directors.  This director had consistently made movies that were always thought provoking, well crafted and well acted.  However, on this matinee occasion, the movie that I was hoping would be great, was just ok.  What to do?  Should I put that director in the "bad box" - and never see another one of his films, or should I chalk it up to "one cinematic failure", in the context of a larger career of great films?  Again, I did the latter.  And I will look forward to this next director's film.

Where am I going with this blog?

We live in a world where people are more divided today than ever before.  Not only are the divisions chasm like, but they are more entrenched than ever.  It's not that fun to be in the same room with people of differing opinions these days.  If you think about it, however, most of us are divided, over only one issue.  There are many to choose from, here is a list of common malefactors in the world of division:

*  Presidential Politics
*  Gender Issues
*  Racial Divides
*  Economic Inequalities

The list goes on and on.  When we get divided on a particular issue, we have the tendency, unlike the model that I have put forward for a restaurant or a movie director, to put a person in a kind of "bad box".  Because they differed on one particular issue, they are bad!

A recent personal revelation that I have come to is that division from another person is as much my responsibility as it is someone else's.  If I have had a good relationship with someone for a period of time, and then a division occurs over a difference of opinion, I have decided not to let that ONE issue be the cause of division.  If, on the other hand, there is a long pattern of behavior from someone, that is not relationship building or sustaining, then a division is often an appropriate decision.  However, there needs to be more than just "one bad meal", "one bad movie", "one bad encounter", that causes a division.

There is an old English phrase that is used in marriage ceremonies still today that can be useful here.  It is:

Torn Asunder

Asunder, is an old English word (ONSUNDRON) that means - "into parts" "into different pieces" "apart from each other in position".  In marriage ceremonies it is used in the phrase, "What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder."  The idea here is that it is often our own choice what divides us and what doesn't divide us.  A person (man) can decide what will cause a rift and what will not.

In my own faith journey, I have decided that I am going to be the one that decides what things are cause for division and what things are not.  If it is just one differing opinion, or difference in perspective, I'm going to give that person the benefit of the doubt.

All For Now,

GB





Friday, April 19, 2019

A Tithe of Baptisms


There are some weekends in ministry you just feel intuitively that, many years from now,  when you are chewing a long piece of grass, while rocking yourself to sleep on the front porch of your retirement home, that you are sure you will remember.  This coming weekend at Burlpres (The First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame), is shaping up to be one of them.

This weekend is Easter, and we will be celebrating 51 baptisms and re-affirmations of baptism in our church!

Five weeks ago, we began a Lenten preaching series on the topic of baptism.  Using each of the baptismal questions as a guide for the sermon series (Who is the Lord of your life?, Do you Trust him?, Do you want to be a faithful Disciple?, Do you recognize the power of Sin and evil in the world and promise to do your best to turn against them?, Do you want to Devote yourself to the life and ministry of the congregation?), we preached through these basic tenets of the Christian faith.  The series was called, "Coming Clean", a play on the use of water as a baptismal symbol, and the process of a spiritual cleaning of the inner self.  We talked about how baptism is a "renaming", a "miracle", a "sealing", and a "mark" of God's promise.  We discussed the historical fact that in the first century church, all baptisms took place on Easter.

And yet...we didn't expect this outpouring of response.

In my twenty years of ministry, I have never known a congregation to be more responsive or more excited about the concept of baptism than this one.  What began with an oblique goal of having around 20 people baptized or reaffirmed in their baptism, has turned into a larger movement of the Holy Spirit.  Most people, myself included, thought 20 baptisms was an ambitious goal, but one worth shooting for.  What has resulted has culminated in a veritable...

Tide of Baptisms

Or should I say...

Tithe of Baptisms

I say tithe, because at around 700 members, 51 baptisms (and we could have more before Saturday and Sunday when our services take place) is a little less than 10% of our church.  This idea of 10% of the church being baptized has also helped me see another important facet of the baptism experience.  Like tithing (giving 10% of our time, talent and treasure to the church), baptism is a way of giving back.

When a person stands before a worshipping community and answers the baptismal questions and has water put on their head in the name of the, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit", it is a way of saying, "Lord, this life does not belong to me.  This life belongs to you.  I do not own my life.  You do!  You're in charge.  Take back this life you gave to me, clean it, and make it new, and use it for your larger purposes."  When 10% of a congregation gives back their hearts, minds, bodies and souls to God, I can only assume that God is pleased with this offering.  It's a...

Tithe of Baptisms

What has been so powerful for me are the individual stories of renewal that I have been privileged to be a part of.  There is the teen age girl in Sonoma who is on her way to college, and has never been baptized, but wants to do it before she makes this next big step in her life.  There is the retired man, who, having completed a successful business career, now wants to do something spiritually significant with the rest of his life.  There is the couple who live in San Mateo, who just started coming to the church who have a crazy Bay Area existence, and want to dedicate their two children in baptism.  There is the couple who lost their son-in-law to suicide less than a month ago, and wants a reminder that even in a world of brokenness, that God still exists.  There is the woman who is now separated from her husband in a potential divorce dynamic, and wants a reminder of the special mark God still has on her life.  And the list goes on and on.

Churches, of course, are made up of more than just a collection of individual stories.  A church is also more than simply a large handful of people, from a varying array of backgrounds, who are gathered in one place to worship God.  Churches are comprised of significant groups of people who do big things for God.  It was this concept of a small but powerful gathering (of disciples, of apostles, of servants, of 70 workers) that God had in mind as having the power to stand against the gates of hell, and also the power to lean towards the gates of heaven.

I am so grateful for this call and this church and this ministry at this time in my life.  There was a time when I actually wondered if God was really still calling me to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament.  However, it is weekends like this one that reaffirms my commitment to the ministry.  It is weekends like this one that also remind me of the baptismal vows that my parents once dedicated my life to as an infant, 47 years ago.  God is still God.  And God still has a plan. And that plan is very good!

Oh and one more thing - I am one of the 51 who will be re-affirming their baptismal vows.  So, excitingly, I too can say that I may be playing a very small role in a larger contribution to the...

Tithe of Baptisms

All for now,

GB







Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Stories that Heal


After twenty years of preaching ministry, I am finally beginning to see the healing value in the telling of a well crafted story.

Not too long ago, I was trying to explain to someone the need for churches to stand up for people who are oppressed - particularly by bullies.  So, I told this story...

When I was about 12 years old, and in Junior High, I was at the gym one day with my Dad.  I was a very scrawny kid when I was younger, so the weights I was lifting on that particular day, were not very heavy.  In the same corner of the gym where I was curling 20 pound dumbbells, was a very muscled out, dare I say steroid infused, body builder.  When he saw me lifting the small weights, he sort of started to make fun of me, belittling the amount of weight that I was lifting.  Though I didn't care too much about the taunts at the time, when my father saw what was going on, he was incensed. Walking up to the 250 pound body builder, the Rev. Dr. Donald Baird (in good shape, but no body builder) said, "That is my son that you are picking on.  If you have something to say, then say it to me."  The body builder, taking my dad up on his offer, said, "Sure, let's scuffle, old man."  At that point, my dad and I high tailed it out of the gym together.  Though we didn't "win the fight that day," these many 30 plus years later, I will never forget how my father, risking his own safety, stood up for me, his son.

The moral to the story?  Sometimes bigger people need to stand up for oppressed people, even if they won't win the fight.  Sometimes churches need to stand up to bullies.

As I have told that story to a few people, I have begun to see a HEALING light go be turned on in their hearts and minds.  The telling of the story, and the framing of an idea within a narrative space, gives the subject matter deeper meaning.

A lot of great leaders through history have used the power of stories to win people towards their ideas.  Abraham Lincoln was famous for story telling as a political medium.  Often Lincoln's stories took the shape of a joke.  Sometimes they were more like metaphors.  Once, when told that a particular senator was not voting the way he wanted him to, about the end of the Civil War, Lincoln said; [I am paraphrasing], "There's more than one way to get a horse to move.  You can try to pull him by the bit, or you can put a horse fly on his back side.  The horsefly often gets better results."

Jesus told most of his deepest truths through stories (parables).  Jesus was the sort of person, who, if you came to him with a problem, he would tell a story.  When asked about what heaven looks like, Jesus told story after story starting with the line, "The kingdom of heaven is like...a mustard seed."  When asked about justice, Jesus told a story about a widow, who came to a judge day in and day out. When asked about who we should love, Jesus told a story about a man who was beaten up on a distant and rural road.

So, for example, if Jesus were on the earth today, and you asked him about the immigrant crisis, and whether we should care for children, he would most likely answer in this way, "There once was a farmer who had lots of field hands.  Some of the field hands came from the north, some lived locally, and some came from the south.  The field hands from the south were the hardest working, but nobody cared for them...." (or something like that - of course, I am not Jesus, so my story telling ability is not up to the messiah's).

If you have a problem you are working through, or you are in the middle of a tough issue, or you are in the middle of a debate in a work place setting, try telling a story.  You just might find that stories have the greatest capacity to heal.

All For now,

GB













Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Generalities and Specifics


A wise person once told me (and I literally can't remember which wise person, because I have had so many in my life) that:

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

What I think my wise friend was saying in this axiomatic phrase is that a lot of damaging things happen in life when people use generalizations, rather than giving specific details about a situation.

We see this a lot in politics today - on both sides of the isle.  Here are some gems from just this past week that came through cable news outlets: "Democrats are doing this country a lot of harm." "Republicans are all only interested money."  "Immigrants are all criminals."  "Billionaires are always selfish." "All news media is fake."  "Californians are all crazy." "New Yorkers are all cold hearted." "Southerners are all racist." "White people are all detached from reality." While it, of course, may be the case that some Democrats do harm, some Republicans are financially focussed, some immigrants take part in criminal activity, some billionaires are selfish, some news media fibs on the truth...(you get the picture), it cannot be said that anything happens all of the time.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

This also happens on the interpersonal front.  Not long ago a couple came into my office for pastoral counseling.  They had been struggling in their marriage.  I began by asking the wife what her issues with her husband were.  She said, "He never gives me affection."  The husband retorted with, "She is always ragging on me."  After about half an hour of this, I asked the wife to see if she could remember any time in their marriage when her husband had been affectionate.  She paused, "when we were first married, he used to take me on dates."  I returned the question to the husband, "She used to tell me how many things I did well."  You could see from the looks on their faces that a breakthrough had been made.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

A person stopped me at church recently and told me, after a worship service, "A lot of people are upset about...(the flowers arrangement, to use a hypothetical example)."  Concerned, I asked, "Who is upset?"  "I can't tell you that's confidential."  "How many people are upset about this?" "Lots", "But how many?"  "I can't tell you."  "What specifically are they upset about?" "They're just upset."  I could see I wasn't getting anywhere. The rest of the day I wondered to myself who it was that was upset, how many, what they were upset about?  The generality left me feeling enervated.  A specific would have helped me to work on the problem.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

It turns out that this saying is actually true from a Biblical standpoint.  Think of the first encounter we have with the devil in the Bible in the garden of Eden.  The snake comes to Eve and encourages her to eat an apple from the tree of good and evil.  Eve thinks its a bad idea.  The snake gives Eve a generalized response; "Your eyes will be opened, you will be like God."  It's a generalization.  Eyes opened to what?  Like God how?  What qualities of life will Eve get from the apple that she doesn't already have in the perfect garden?

The corollary to this is that every angel we encounter in the Bible gives specific instructions and details.  When the angel announces the birth of Jesus, he is extremely specific; "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a [specific] sign to you - you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."  Specific details - time, place, name, sign.  Clarity.

Another pithy way of communicating this same principle is; "clarity reduces conflict," "generalizations are always pathologies."  But, of course, I just made a generalization about generalizations, so, I guess...count that one out.

So, today, try to be as specific as you can be today about whatever is happening in your life.  What you may find out is that the angels are closer to you than you think!

All For Now,

GB













Monday, January 21, 2019

Grow Old With Me...


During Christmas vacation I had a chance to go through some old boxes of papers from my mother's, Scottish, side of the family.  Some of those papers had to do with my grandparents who were interned during World War II in Japanese concentration camps in the country of Borneo (more specifically, the Batu Lintang Camp in the present city of Kuching).  My grandparents, Donald and Nini, were interned for 3.5 years, along with their two children, Ranald and Sheena.  Finally, when the war came to an end, Nini, my grandma, was able to go visit her favorite sister who was living in Scotland.  She had waited through the war to see her, and now that the war was over, she could go and visit her.  On the way, home my grandma received a tragic letter that, sadly, her sister, Isabel, had just passed away.  Isabel was just 42 at the time.  It was these papers from Isabel that I read for the first time this Christmas.

My grandma and grandpa's wedding picture, from before the war, is included above.  Nini (my grandma's) sister Isabel, is shown in the background, second from the left.

One line that instantly jumped out at me from one of Isabel's last letters to her sister (my grandma) were:

Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be

When I read that line, it brought a tear to my eye.  It's such a beautiful and poetic line about life, and the perseverance through it, and that sadly, this was not the case for Isabel, who died too young.

Grow Old With Me....The Best Is Yet To Be

It's a positive affirmation that time marches on, life moves forward, we all grow older, and yet, the best things in life often await us in older age.

Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be

It's an affirmation that the best things in life lay before us and not behind us.  Often we feel that the best things in our lives are in the past.  People who think this way are often prone to deep periods of regret or remorse or grief.  People who believe that the best things are yet to come are often more hopeful, more joyful, more contented.  Though things may not be perfect in the present, The Best Is Yet To Be.

The apostle Paul put the same sentiment in a slightly different way; "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you, will carry it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).  What Paul is saying here is that God will make sure that the best things in our lives not only continue to happen in this life, but will happen in the life to come.

It was this assurance, too, that helped my grandma, Nini, cope with the notion that her favorite sister had died.

Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be!

All For Now,

GB

Monday, December 31, 2018

No One Else Is Having More Fun:-)


So, today is New Year's Eve.  It is 3:34 post meridian to be exact.  This marks my 46th new year's eve, which if you are good at math, you can figure out how old I am as well.  And here's what I have experienced in at least 40 of those years of New Year's celebrations (grant you my 6 year old New Year's celebration involved popcorn and an early showing of Mr. Rogers neighborhood):

No One Else is Having More Fun:-)

For 46 years I have sought out the most fun thing I could think of doing on New Years Eve.  I have sought out the most fun celebrations when I was single in my twenties.  I have searched out the most happening locales, which I did when I was married without kids.  I have undertaken the most entertaining restaurants, house parties, church activities, venues, places, spaces and more.  To this end I have celebrated Hogmanay (the Scottish version of New Years) in Glasgow, Scotland.  I have watched fire works shot into the sky over the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt.  I have visited happening night clubs in Copenhagen, Denmark, and in Minnesota (actually went to Prince's famous Purple Rain bar).  I have eaten at some of the nicest restaurants (The CIA "Culinary Institute of America" - Greystone, in Napa being my favorite).  I went to fun house parties in San Francisco on the boundary of the Castro and Noe Valley where my sister used to live.

And here's what I have found.  No matter where I was at the time, I always thought someone else was having more fun.  I would invariably be sitting in a room of people, say in San Francisco, who, when the ball dropped on New York's Time Square, were watching the television screen.  And everyone watched with a pining inner angst as they watched other people having more fun than them.  And then, everyone would look around the room at each other, and the glance in their eyes said, "I wish I was there in that place, rather than here in this place."  But guess what?

No One Else is Having More Fun:-)

New Year's Eve is one of the most aspirational holidays that, to be honest, never seems to meet its own aspirations.  I have spoken with people who were standing but a few feet away from the ball dropping in Time's Square in New York, and within eyeshot of the equivalent of Anderson Cooper and Kathy Lee, and they were totally miserable.  The temperature was like 25 degrees with wind chill, and all of them standing there were wondering if someone else around the world was having more fun.  Actually, I have heard that in New York, they show pictures of places like Dubai and Sydney and London, and everyone wonders of they are having more fun in those places.  But, you get the picture:

No One Else is Having More Fun:-)

So, wherever you are tonight, and however you are celebrating.  Whether you are in Salem, Oregon, or Boise, Idaho, or Decker, Michigan.  Whether you are sitting around with kids or grandkids.  Whether you are in a nursing home in Pasadena, California.  Whether you have money, or no means at all.  Whether you have someone to kiss when that yard arm reaches it's median point, and crosses over into the new year.  Realize this:

No One Else is Having More Fun:-)

So, make the most of where you are!

All For Now,

GB




Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The First Televangelist


I was reading a book recently about the 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther.  WAIT!  I know, Martin Luther is sort of a boring topic to write a blog post about.  However, I just learned something very interesting about Martin Luther.  He was really the first "televangelist", "mass media pastor".  In today's terms he might have been considered the Rick Warren of pastors, or Billy Graham, or what have you.

As you know, the Gothenburg Press was just being invented and used for mass communication purposes about the time of the Reformation.  What I didn't realize, is that Luther never really intended for his famous "95 Theses" to be published.  Luther simply wrote up a series of debating theses, for his students at seminary to be debating in class, that involved the Catholic Church.  You remember your debate days: "Resolved that a Comprehensive System of Health Care Reform be Implemented". Someone found his theses, thought they were so good, that they mass produced them and sent them around the entire German countryside.  Before Luther knew it, he was famous.

This has gotten me to thinking about the importance of mass communication when it comes to modern day church work.  When I was first starting New Churches with my brother Jamie, about 10 years ago, the best way to get your name out as a church was to send mass mailers in snail mail.  These still have some impact.  However, today, online platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, are actually much better.  Each week, I film a little video snippet for these, letting the larger community know what God is doing at Burlpres.

Frankly, this blogsite used to be a wonderful way to reach people, however, technology has changed, as new digital platforms have emerged.

If you are a pastor of a church, or are in a congregation that doesn't use mass media to reach the larger world, you are missing out.  If Martin Luther could do it, so can you!

All For Now,

GB