Monday, July 25, 2016
What About An Interim President?
This is not a commentary on either of the two top final Presidential candidates (Clinton or Trump) or their party platforms, or their political makeup. As a pastor, I have always believed that it was important for churches and pastors to remain neutral in most political debates - the church should be apolitical whenever possible. The question I am asking is really about process. Do we really know which direction to go in this country right now? With all of the craziness around the world today involving terrorism, immigration, and extreme poverty, disease, and economic uncertainty (just to name a few issues) do we really understand as a country which person is best positioned to lead? Do we even know enough about the issues to make an informed decision about leadership? What about taking a six month pause in between US Presidents and reflecting, praying and discerning as a country which direction is the best direction to proceed in?
What About An Interim President?
In my own professional field (the ministry), I have learned the benefit for churches when they are transitioning from one pastor to another, of having a time when an Interim pastor can come in and lead the congregation through a period of discernment. Let me lift up some of the potential benefits of an Interim Pastor and let you apply them to the Presidency where they are helpful. Interim pastors can help to:
Clean Up the Messes Of The Previous Pastor
Every pastor (check that - every leader), no matter how qualified or competent or gifted, has blind spots. Every leader has areas that they are really capable in, and areas that they are not expert about. Take one of our most famous and capable US Presidents for example - George Washington. Washington was a great leader in the midst of a long drawn out war. Washington was an expert at persevering, at holding together a group of people through thick and thin. However, Washington was not particularly that capable at organizational leadership. He wasn't great at setting-up leadership systems. Political organization was Washington's blind spot.
Avoid The Pendulum Effect
In every system there is a tendency, when there is a transition between one leader and another, for the system to lurch to an extreme (or as the analogy indicates - to swing like a pendulum in the opposite direction). The most classic example in modern politics is Jimmy Carter's Presidency followed by Ronald Reagan's presidency. Nothing could be more different than the leadership styles of these two men. Carter wore button down cardigan sweaters, Reagan wore pocket squares and tailored suits. Carter tended to give long meandering answers to questions, Reagan tended to crisp one liners that he had rehearsed. Many political theorists have suggested that Reagan, though a good president in his own right, was also a pendulum effect from Jimmy Carter.
The same tendency towards a "pendulum effect" exists in churches. I know of one church where the previous pastor, a great leader, tended towards a very strong, almost heavy-handed approach to leadership. That pastor's decisions were highly regarded and taken very seriously and carried out with exactness. Then, the church decided when that pastor retired, to not have an Interim Pastor in-between. So, not having had an interim, the church replaced that pastor with another pastor who had a totally different leadership style. The new pastor was extremely passive, loose, random and even flighty in his leadership style. It was an example of the pendulum effect. An Interim Pastor breaks up the pendulum effect.
Assist The Congregation To Reflect Upon Their Core Identity
In the midst of the stress of day to day details, it can sometimes be hard to remember who you are as a person, or a group. After World War II, and the German Reich led by Adolf Hitler, one of the most difficult things for the Germans to wrap their minds around was the question of who they were as a people. What did it mean to be German? What did it not mean to be German? The Marshall Plan, assisting Germany with debt relief and economic recovery was a kind of Interim Leader dynamic that helped the German people begin to understand core identity issues about themselves.
Prepare The Way For The Next Pastor
Every great leader requires a person or persons who precede them to prepare the way for that person's leadership. The best example from the Bible is that of John the Baptist and Jesus. For years ahead of the start of Jesus' ministry, John prepared the way. John preached and taught and prophesied - and in turn brought thousands of people to repentance and Baptism before Jesus' ministry. Many of the people who listened to, and were healed by Jesus had actually been Baptized by John before Jesus' ministry began. It could be argued that Jesus ministry (remembering that Jesus is fully human and fully God) would it not have been as successful had it not been for John's preparation.
Take Care of Necessary Details
I know of one Interim Pastor of a well established church in Southern California that has helped that church to balance their budget before the next pastor comes in. When the Interim began there was a budget deficit of around $300,000. Now, after just a short time, the budget is almost balanced. The new pastor coming in will now, fortunately, not have to deal with the budget on day one.
Hit the Pause Button And Catch Their Breath
As I watched the Republican Presidential Convention and as I begin to watch the Democratic Presidential Convention, I am struck by one glaring reality - Americans seem exhausted! Americans seem totally tired and absolutely enervated. The aggression that I observed at last week's convention and am sure to observe at this week's convention (both inside the hall and outside) seems less to do with deep down hatred or anger as it seems to point to an inner fatigue and depletion of people's bodies, minds and souls. An Interim might help to calm people's nerves and offer a moment of thoughtfulness.
What About An Interim President?
What harm can it do? More to the point, after a time of prayer, discernment and reflection, won't America be in a better position do know exactly what direction in which to move? Just sayin...
All For Now,
Monday, July 18, 2016
Yesterday, my eldest daughter, Haley (8), celebrated her first communion. It was not a planned event, or a celebration that was taken up with much fanfare or preparation. There were no communicants classes beforehand, or elementary school "communion curriculum". It happened in an art studio (Sessions @ the Loft), where Mission Street Church is currently meeting for our afternoon worship service in Camarillo. The congregation was a smaller crowd because of summer vacation. Uncharacteristically, I was standing next to my daughter, rather than sitting up front, on a dias or a stage. As our row got up to walk to the front to take communion, Haley looked at me like, "Can I go too?" "Do you want to take communion?" I asked, "You can!" Sheepishly, Haley ripped off a big chunk of bread from the common loaf, and gingerly she dipped it into the cup of grape juice. "Congratulations," I said to Haley, "this is a special moment!"
All the way home from church, Haley asked me deep questions about her maiden communion experience. "So, why did Jesus have to die?" "Did it hurt?" "So, when you take communion, you actually eat the body and the blood of Jesus?" "No, not actually," I explained, "It's just a symbol, a sign of that. It's a memory of what Jesus did for us on the cross, by dying for us." Silence and contemplation ensued all the rest of the way home. I was contemplating communion even more deeply too!
Communion, or Communio (from "communis" - common) - from the Latin - "with oneness" and "with coming together", is a deeply mysterious and inexplicable experience. Even though Christians around the world celebrate communion every weekend, and some people take communion every single day (when I visited Poland as an exchange student in college, I remember some Poles taking communion three times a day), it still defies explanation or total and true understanding. In short, communion really the closest connection that Christ followers have, in physical and spiritual form, to Christ, this side of heaven: "He who abides in me and I in him, will bear much fruit. But cut off from me, and you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
If you look up the dictionary definition of "communion" there are three main answers: (1) the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level, (2) common participation in a mental or emotional experience, (3) the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared. All three definitions connote a very close coming together, unity, and intimacy. If some of the disciples were a little bit abashed to wash Jesus' feet at the invitation to do so, because it seemed "out of place", then celebrating the first communion with Jesus on the Passover before Jesus' death must have felt extra jarring and strange.
The Roman community that lived around the early Christians thought that this new "Christ-following" group were a kind of death-cult because they, "ate the flesh and drank the blood of their God". Early Christians, for fear of reprisals and shunning by their neighbors celebrated communion in secret places, often beneath the cities where they lived, in catacombs and burial caves. This association with the dead further stigmatized the practice of communion. When Christians tried to counteract the outside perceptions about communion by calling it a, "Love feast", further confusion and disambiguation occurred. "What is really going on with these Chrsitians?"
I was recently told a very touching story about the celebration of communion in Scotland. Most of the churches (or kirks) in Scotland are accompanied by grave yards which flank the perimeter of the church. On Sundays where communion is celebrated, and as a way of commemorating the "Communion of Saints", after the meal is served in church during the worship service, the extra wine and bread are spread upon the gravestones outside the church, as a way of including past loved ones in the feast.
One of the tendencies of North American Protestant Christians is the desire to explain away every mystery and conundrum of the faith. Every aspect of faith, it is thought, can be logically and critically understood (the Trinity, Baptism, Prayer, Healing) - and this includes holy communion. But I have always found that the mystery of the experience is why it is also powerful. As the Christian thinker (and novelist) Dorothy Sayers said, "The magic is the mystery" and the "dogma is the drama".
And so, with my eight year old daughter who just celebrated her first communion, I, after my 1,000th communion, am sometimes left after the celebration of it with more questions than answers. And yet at the deepest level, after communion, I am also left more complete, more satiated, more whole. "So, you are eating Jesus?" asked my dumbfounded daughter. "No, not really...but...sort of..." "Then why did they say that it was the blood and body of Jesus?" "I know," I said, "It's confusing isn't it...."
All For Now,
Monday, July 4, 2016
On this Fourth of July Monday (the 240th birthday of our nation), I want to reflect for a moment on the handful of geniuses that were assembled during the early parts of our country's founding (the "genius cluster" - as former Presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan would call it). Most scholars agree that it was not simply the unique global geopolitical circumstances that contributed to America's ability to become independent and form the first Federal Republic in the history of the world, but it was the handful of truly gifted leaders and geniuses of different stripes who were assembled on the American stage at that time. You know the names as individuals, but stop for a moment to consider them as a group:
Thomas Jefferson - the philosopher genius who was an expert in enlightenment, post-enlightenment, and renaissance thinkers and who penned the first documents in our country.
Benjamin Franklin - the inventor and diplomatic genius who worked assiduously to develop support for thirteen colonies and the would-be United States in Holland and then France. Without him, America would have remained just a theory and a dream.
John Adams - the political genius who muscled through the idea of an independent America within the United States. Without Adams' pugnacious persistence, convincing supporters of the American cause to rally, America would have been for not.
Alexander Hamilton - the financial genius who devised one of the first centralized banking systems in the world, which consolidated the power of the government into a more crystalline central core. Before him, money was held by wealthy land-owners only, and if you borrowed, you borrowed from them.
George Washington - the persevering military genius who kept together a band of rebels and rabble rousers that called themselves soldiers, fighting with almost no supplies or means (or even uniforms) against the greatest military in the world.
Jay and Monroe could be added....and the list goes on. The question, again, is not that such people would have lived at all, but that such people would have lived at the same time in the same place and rallied for the same cause. "Genius clusters" - Peggy Noonan argues (in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on July 3) - "happen in history and no one knows why." Noonan asked a great historian about the phenomenon once. How did it happen? "Providence," he guessed.
So it is God who assembles such genius clusters. I agree with this!
There are countless other examples of genius clusters that have taken place in history. Some have argued that during World War II - FDR, Churchill, and de Gaulle represented a kind of genius cluster. There were military genius clusters as well during World War II - Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz, Bull Halsey, and Stilwell. In the Civil War there was Grant, Lee, Stonewall, Sherman, Sheridan and Lincoln.
As a pastor, I have thought about genius clusters that have occurred in the church throughout history. Whenever any great innovation or advent came about (the Reformation for example), it was not simply the result of one great thinker or even two - but a cluster of geniuses.
Martin Luther - the courageous genius who developed the idea, for the first time since Paul's epistles, that we are "saved by grace". Luther's genius was having the tenacity to take the idea to Rome and the corrupt papacy.
John Calvin - the systematic genius and student of the law, who boiled all of the Reformation ideas down into crisp, clear systematized concepts and ideas that people could use.
John Knox the political theologian genius who helped put in place ideas like free public education, checks and balances in government, and a nationalized reformed church.
Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe and Zwingli should also go on the list. Again, not to belabor the point, but why were these people assembled at a particular time in human history for a particular cause? Noonan observes that, "genius clusters require deep crises, otherwise their gifts are not revealed." And, "members of genius clusters tend to pursue shared goals."
As I think about the radical changes that need to take place in North American Christianity for it to thrive, the way it has in history, I wonder if there are enough geniuses around - "genus clusters" - to move the faith forward in any concerted or focussed way. Frankly, what we have seen more of in early 21st century is trend towards is "genius fracturing" rather than "genius clustering". Most of the great Christian thinkers and pastors, seem to be working at cross purposes to bring about more of what they consider important ends. Perhaps the "fracturing" is a result of personalized ends rather than group causes.
On this fourth of July what we need is - more clustering, less fracturing!
Thank God for our founders - on this 240th - Fourth!
All For Now,
Monday, June 27, 2016
For nearly two years, Mission Street Church met in a huge movie theater by the side of Highway 101 - just as you are driving through Camarillo (The Edwards Movie Theater). Each day, I literally drive by the old movie theater two or three times as I pass through town. Our church no longer meets in the Edwards because of cost increases in the movie industry (the theater in the end was costing $1,000 per week) but the theater landmark still holds a place in my heart as an emblem of God's work in my life, and the potential of God's work in the world. Whenever my two daughters see the Edwards theater from the car they yell out - "'There's the church!"
When Mission Street first began, I committed myself to pray for this new church, this new work of the Spirit, each time I passed the Edwards Theater. Using the example of Jack Hayford, who prayed over every chair in the church that he began many years ago, I prayed over the theater: "Dear Lord, please be with Mission Street Church - and build whatever you want to build here, In the Name of Jesus -Amen" (I said that three or four times a day). And so, the theater developed as a kind of "Pavlovian" or "BF Skinnerian" response mechanism for me. When I saw the theater, I prayed.
After Mission Street moved from the theater to the "Sessions @ The Loft" (art studio), I still had the habit of praying for the church, even though we didn't meet in the Edwards any more. Somehow I understood that that was what God wanted me to now do with the theater. To pray, to pray, to pray...every time I saw the Edwards. Now, I pray for lots of things whenever I pass the Edwards (world peace, Christianity, healing in a person's life, my kids, my wife, my congregants, other churches, my larger calling, my personal needs). The Edwards for me has become my Ebinezer. And so, this week, I want to encourage you to;
Build An Ebinezer
What is an Ebinezer? Ebinezer in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 4:1, 5:1), is the place where the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant (the Ark that held within it the 10 Commandments); "Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebinezar". There the Philistines conquered the Israelites. There was a degree of pain related to Ebinezer for the Israelites. It was where they lost.
Ebinezer was also the place where the Israelites, under Samuel, years later, defeated the Philistines. And so, the stones marked a place of victory. Ironically, the place holds a double purpose for the Israelites - it marks both defeat and it marks victory.
Real places of faith always occupy competing aspects of victory and defeat, joy and sorrow, happiness and hardship - in all of our lives.
To help the Israelites remember that place, God told the Israelites to build a stone monument to help commemorate God's aid during a time of trouble, an "Ebinezer". "Ebenezer" literally means "Stone of Help". Whenever the Israelites saw that stone, that pillar, that monument, that small building, they were supposed to think of God and remember and thank and ask God for future provisions. There they would remember the good times and the hard times.
There is an old church hymn called, "Come Thou Font Every Blessing" in which there is a line in the middle of it that goes; "Here I Raise My Ebinezer". As a young kid, I used to wonder what that meant. Did God want me to read "A Christmas Carol" featuring "Ebinezer Scrooge"? What did it mean? Years later, I realized that an Ebinezer is a monument (usually stone) that reflects and marks God's work in our lives. It reflects the good times and the hard times. There we should remember God.
What is your Ebinezer? What is the monument in your life that marks both a time of challenge and a time of victory for God in your life? What is your, "Stone of Help".
I have a friend whose father passed away not too long ago. His father is now buried in a local cemetery not far from his home in the family plot. Like all father-son relationships, my friend struggled with aspects of his Dad's personality. He also benefited from many other aspects greatly. My friend goes to visit his father's grave every now and then. His Dad's grave stone is a kind of monument, a kind of marker, a kind of "Stone of Help" that reminds him of who he is, and who he can be, through God. He remembers and gives thanks and prays there.
What is your Ebinezer? What is your, "Stone of Help"?
Mine is an old movie theater along the side of Highway 101 that no longer houses the church I am helping to build - but it does house something much more important - my prayers, gratitude and hopes for the future in God.
Build An Ebinezer!
All For Now,
that we used to sing
Monday, June 20, 2016
On October 26, of last year, the late autumn sun was blazing down upon our back yard here in Oxnard, California. Halloween was just 5 days away, and because I had a busy work week ahead, this was my only chance to help the girls carve their pumpkins for the upcoming holiday on Oct. 31 (And yes, as children of Scots who love costume and flourish, we do celebrate Halloween in our household). As Sheena and Haley carved out the inside goo from their respective pumpkins, a clump of ooze clung to one of their hands. "Ooh, yuck Daddy, get it off!" "Just fling it in the garden," I said. "Just fling it in the garden....". Little did I know how portentous this advice would end up to be. Apparently, the pumpkin slime also carried with it at least one seed from the inside of the pumpkin. I know this because, as I write this post, a twenty foot plant, verdant with two basketball sized pumpkins now grows in our garden (pictured above). From this slimy seed has grown a huge plant. And this whole episode has got me thinking about:
The Power Of A Single Seed
The gospel of Jesus Christ is really in large part about this very dynamic. Of course, the Bible is rife with stories about seeds:
* "I have given you every herb bearing seed..." (Gen. 1:29)
* "He that sows sparingly will reap sparingly" (2 Corinthians 9:6)
* "I say to you that unless a seed of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it is useless" (John 12:24)
* "If you have the faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move this mountain" (Matt. 17:20)
* "Still other seed fell on good soil, and it came up" (Mark 4:8)
And all of these illustrations about seeds are significant and carry with them deeper meaning for their particular context. What is remarkable about my own story of the "pumpkin seed", and why I think that it is an emblem of the gospel of Christ is because:
A Seemingly Unwitting Action Produced Such a Huge Result
I am actually quite a terrible gardener. For most of my life I have tried unsuccessfully to grow many things (vegetables, flowers, trees). Either by benign neglect or over-attention I have managed to kill most of the plants that I have been in charge of. I have been equally unsuccessful in helping my daughters to grow plants. Our pumpkin plant was not meant to grow where it did, or as large as it did - and yet it grew.
The Kingdom of God happens in the same way. With the flick of a wrist, an enrollment in a class, a decision to pay off debt, a "yes I will marry you", a tag-along to a Sunday school class, many many lives have been changed forever.
A Child Did the Flinging
Something tells me Jesus would have loved this story of the pumpkin seed. For one thing, He loved/loves children. He loved their random energy, their impetuous ideas, their innocent games, their animated excitement over pumpkin goo. The Jesus that I know would have loved that what a child thought was, "goo" as actually the beginning of a great living thing. I can almost hear Jesus telling this parable:
"The kingdom of God is like a child carving out a pumpkin and getting slimy goo all over her fingers and flinging it into a field, only to find eight months later that the goo that was rejected turned into a huge blooming plant."
The goo that was rejected - became the corner plant of a whole new world!
The Kingdom Grows Where It Will
When I said that the pumpkin goo was flung unwittingly into the garden, I wasn't being exactly accurate. As you can see from the picture, the seed was flung just along the side of the cement edge of the porch. No hole was dug, no water was poured on it, no fertilizer was strewn on top of it, no care whatsoever was given to the bourgeoning plant. Just a single seed being flung by a child on a hot autumn day. It really is testament to;
The Power of A Single Seed!
All For Now,
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Monday, June 6, 2016
It is no exaggeration to say that I have probably made around 1,000 salads in the past two years. The truth is, the way that some people work on the "Great American Novel", I am working on the "Great American Salad". I have been working to perfect the best salad on the face of the earth. I love a really good salad, and because they are healthy and light I love to eat them. Being filled up with salad does not make you feel sluggish the way being filled up with a steak dinner can. The process some evenings can take me up to two hours to perfect the perfect salad. Here are some of some of the tricks I have learned on the road to salad perfection:
These are best made by taking dryish bread (preferably sourdough), and tossing large chunks of it in olive oil, garlic, basil, seasoning, some kind of hard cheese (Parmesan, Aged Gouda...). Then, bake it at 350 for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.
Finely Diced Ingredients
I don't know where I learned that the smaller the ingredient, the more of it you can get into your mouth. Lots of small bits of lettuce, pickled beets, cucumbers, carrots and bacon, taste better in your mouth than large chunks of just one thing. In high end restaurants this has become known as "chop salad". Salt and pepper to taste.
Washing All Ingredients Thoroughly
This would seem to go without saying, but lettuce, and other vegetables just taste a lot better if they have been washed totally and thoroughly. They are also, not to mention, much more healthy this way....
Plating Salad Nicely On A Glass Plate
My mother gave me some rather inexpensive clear glass plates several years ago, and they are my favorite for plating salad.
And so my evenings have gone. One salad after another. One collection of vegetables, type of lettuce, temperature of ingredient (there is nothing better than really cold lettuce, sometimes I put mine in the freezer until just before serving), and variety of cheese. The one thing that has eluded me, though, in my quest for salad greatness has been the salad dressing. And, of course, the salad dressing hands down one of the most important factors in making a great salad.
Typically, I have begun each salad dressing by taking an empty salad bowl and just randomly throwing in some kind of oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper, Dijon, and any other sundry ingredient. But the dressings have never been quite right. Sometimes they are too light, other times they are too acidic. Sometimes there is too much dressing other times there is too little. Too vinegary, too salty, too peppery, too spicy...too strong! But then I discovered an incredible thing, which is actually the main (and slightly belabored) focus on my blog post this morning. I discovered a...
After about two years of making salads from scratch and spending long hours on them, trying to concoct the perfect salad totally on my own, I decided to try something bold and out of the box. I decided to try and consult a recipe for making a dressing. And so, as a child of my technical generation, I went to my I-Phone and Googled, "How to make a great Balsamic Salad Dressing":
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 shallot, minced
1 clove of garlic minced
salt and pepper to taste
Presto, the perfect dressing! After two years of trying it completely on my own, what I discovered is the power of consulting a source that is more knowledgable than me (imagine that). What I learned is the benefit of getting the input of chefs and experts (many of whom likely gained Micheline Stars by making salads), chefs and experts who have made even more salads than I have. What I uncovered is the power of a:
I was thinking that many people live their lives by the same method that I have made my salads. They try to figure them out (to make their own salads), all by themselves. Some people spend much more time than two years and 1,000 tries in living their own codes, ideas, concepts, and precepts. Many people spend an entire lifetime trying things out on their own. Like me, often people say, "I know I can figure it out on my own. Just give me a few more tries." But like me, many people find that though their own "way" is often pretty good, it is never exactly just right. In my own case, it is definitely a degree of ego - I will figure it out by myself - that has prevented me from true excellence in the kitchen.
But there is, of course, an ultimate recipe book from our lives. It is not the "Joy of Cooking" but it is the Bible. The Bible is the story of God's intervention, direction, nurture and guidance of millions of people throughout the history of the world over thousands of years living. As the book of Proverbs says, "Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him." (Proverbs 30:5).
If you are in need of an answer today, or have been trying to live life by figuring out things totally on your own, check out God's Recipe Book - the Bible. And then, feel free to...."salt and pepper to taste".
All For Now,