Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Smoke and...Something

On Christmas morning I made a great personal religious discovery. No, it really wasn't an epiphany surrounding the Christ child, though I really did enjoy having 3 1/2 year old present on December 25. No, it wasn't from the Bible, per say. And, no, it did not involve the well-worn re-recognition of what sleeplessness feels like (I went to bed at 1:00AM after four services, and woke up at the crack of ?!?!?!?). My great personal religious discovery on Christmas morning was what the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the temple smelled like for those who were privileged enough to take it in, to experience it. In the church on Christmas morning, I smelled;

Smoke and....Something

Let me offer more explanation. On Christmas morning, I realized, halfway through my third cup of Java, that I had forgotten my wallet and cell phone down at the church. So, around 11:00AM, I drove down to the church to retrieve them. I should explain that when I say, "church", I mean the 16,000 square foot box that we built some 4 years ago on our property. 16,000 square feet is woefully small for our current space needs at Highlands. I believe that Kobe Bryant has a guest house that is larger than 16,000 square feet. So, the night before, 1,787 people crammed into 16,000 square feet, four times. 1,787 held candles aloft as Ave Maria was sung. 1,787 people sat (many stood) nearly on top of one another, hip to hip, cheek to jowl, candle to candle. 1,787 people listened, with half a brain on the message, and the other half on the trampolines they still had to assemble sometime that night. When I entered the room the next morning, there was;

Smoke and....Something

The Bible says that when Zechariah, John the Baptist's father, was on temple duty; "He was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of the incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside." What did Zechariah experience in there? What did he see? What did he smell? I think I now know! He smelled what I smelled on Christmas morning at Highlands;

Smoke and....Something

The smoke at Highlands was easily explicable. We had 1,787 candles the night before. In addition, we had two brightly kindled fires outside the church doors to welcome in visitors with the light of Christ. The smoke in the temple of Jerusalem was equally easily explicable. Incense in the temple had been a traditional smell of God, ever since the Exodus. Smoke was the most important part of the "burnt offering" (whatever that may be - a goat, a sheep, a dove). It was the smoke that arose to God, and the heavens, not the actual meat that was offered. And, of course, incense, frank-incense to be specific, was given to Jesus at his birth. The smoke was easy to explain. But what was the...Something?

At Highlands, it is hard to say what it was. Was it the maliforous smell of many bodies packed closely together, from the nearly 2,000 visitors the night before? Maybe. Was it the smell of panic and fear that the human body produces when in near shock, perhaps by a mother or a grandmother, they remembered that the oven was still on at home? Dinner was burned. Possibly. What was the Something that Zechariah smelled in the temple? The Bible says that, "An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense." Was it the smell of angels? What do angels smell like? Do they smell at all?

Or let me offer a radical explanation. Was the smell in both places some extra-terrestrial encounter with the Spirit of God? The great Hebrew scholar, and father of the modern Hebrew language, Rabbi Elizeer Ben-Yehud, translated Genesis 1:1 as; "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...and the Spirit BROODED over the waters." Was the smell I smelled on Christmas morning, and the smell that Zechariah smelled in the temple, that of the Spirit of God - BROODING? I will never know. No one will ever know. All I can say is that the smell was;

Smoke and...Something

All for Now,

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Last Sledder

Every year, for 7 years now, Highlands Church has dumped 10,000 pounds of snow (a whole truckload) in downtown Paso Robles. At this point, I should remind my blog readers that Paso Robles is basically in Southern California, and the sight of snow in our town in December, is about as likely as a meteor hitting us (We hope that is unlikely). It never snows in Paso! However, we dump 10,000 pounds of it every year in order to build a huge sledding luge run for children to come and slide down during one of our community's street parties. We call it Ski Patrol. The image of a Swiss cross is both a symbol for skiers of safety (a member of a Ski Patrol), as well as a symbol of Christ's death. Every year Ski Patrol gets larger. When we began, we only had around 1,000 pounds of snow. Next year, plans are for two separate luge runs and a massive light display to illuminate the event.

The reason we have done Ski Patrol over the past 7 years is in order to connect with the outside community in a fun and accessible way. We attempt to show that Christians DO have fun every now and then. We also use the attraction as an outreach mechanism (a luring tool), to attract people to our church services, where hopefully we can plant some seeds of God's love. And, by in large, it has worked. The Paso Robles community have begun to look forward to Ski Patrol every year. Actually, now many other organizations are copying us (imitation is the greatest form of flattery). What has been remarkable, during the economic downturn of our country, is to see how Ski Patrol, for many families who don't have financial resources, has become their only form of entertainment all Christmas. One family recently told one of our volunteers, "This is the most fun our kids have had all Christmas, and the only fun we can afford."

But here is the main image I want to offer up from this blog post. This year, Ski Patrol ended around 9:00PM as usual. At 9:00 o-clock, all of the lights, the sleds, the bales of hay, video projection systems, and the music amplifiers were packed up and put away for another year. Ski Patrol was over, right? Not hardly. Early the next morning, around 6:00AM, someone from our church noticed a solitary, singular little boy on a sled, going down the Ski Patrol Run. The little guy was sledding all by himself. Who knows what motived him to be there. Maybe he woke up on his own, and before his parents got out of bed, he picked up his sled, and he headed out, by himself, for one or two last runs. However, this image of the "Last Sledder" has remained with me. This Christmas, for me, this little boy represents the emblem of all that the church stands for. The image of the "Last Sledder" remains with me because it symbolizes the tension between the lasting impact of what we do in our communities, verses the temporal and quickly disappearing displays that most of us are so familiar with. So, here is my question for the day...

Who will be the "Last Sledder" in your ministry this Christmas?

Who will be the "Last Sledder" after everything else gets packed up and put away this Christmas? Who will carry the message of hope that you are preaching and teaching about every week, after you are gone? Who will carry the Gospel after we are all of us are gone from the earth? Who is the person sitting in the dark in the back of church, who isn't singing, "Joy to the World," but by the power of the Holy Spirit is moved to accept Christ this Christmas, and who dedicates their life to eradicating a world disease, ending global hunger, educating abject children in inner cities?

Who will be the "Last Sledder" in your ministry this Christmas?

Here is what I have learned about "Last Sledders" in my eleven years of ministry. "Last Sledders" usually don't attract a lot of attention. "Last Sledders" often seem like they don't care, or aren't interested. "Last Sledders" may argue with you about every single thing you say, and tell you to your face that you are wrong. "Last Sledders" often come late and leave early. "Last Sledders" don't take notes, but somewhere deep in their soul, very deep, they bury what you are offering, to be unearthed like a gemstone at a much later date. In the end, the "Last Sledders" are the ones who carry the mission forward, and hold the light the highest, when everyone else is gone, when the worship service is over, and when the bands have headed home.

The apostle Paul, of course, was one of the most famous "Last Sledders". He brutally criticized and chastized Christ followers for most of his early adulthood. Paul (Saul) hated Christians and all that they stood for. But then, when most of the disciples had separated and gone their own ways, Paul woke up one morning, and pulled out his sled, and went for a run, down the luge, all by himself, just he and God. The "Last Sledder", the apostle Paul, would write these words in the city of Rome; "I Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God offer the following..." (Romans 1:1)

Who Will Be The "Last Sledder" in Your Ministry this Christmas?

All For Now,

Monday, December 5, 2011

Just Plant A Seed

This week I am taking the first steps of a new personal adventure to be a part of a freshly organized program for preaching pastors called a "Micah Group." Micah Groups are a Fuller Theological Seminary Program, birthed from PhD program there, designed to bring fellow pastors together in an academic and spiritual setting to talk and think constructively about the art of preaching. Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, formerly of Hollywood Presbyterian Church is a founding organizer of the Micah Group concept, as is Dr. Mark Labberton, former pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. Both men are great preachers!

The group that co-leader Israel Gonzales and I have organized is made up of some of the best and most well known preachers on the entire Central Coast. For the past three months, we have scanned and prayed about the entire coast from Santa Maria, to San Luis Obispo, to Paso Robles to Cambria, and have assembled, it must be said - 12 simply great preachers! The Micah Group begins in the Spring, but some critical preliminary steps for organization are happening this week. So, please pray for us!

The main point of my blog post this morning is to say that I have been thinking recently about the wisdom of preaching. So, here's my latest wisest idea. Effective, fulfilling, helpful, God- inspired, and incredible preaching is simply a matter of planting a seed.

Just Plant a Seed.

This past Sunday, as I was standing up front at the beginning of worship, with my microphone and headset wires all poking out of me, like I was a modern day reincarnation of Edward Scissor Hands, I was feeling very distracted. All of the organizational notes for my sermon kept going through my head. The worries of my message were pounding down upon me; "rolling down like mighty waters." I was thinking about my introduction and how that led to my first point, and how that led into a joke, and how that led into the big idea of the morning. Actually, I was being bogged down by all of these details, and greatly vexed by them. The vexation I was feeling inside was also easy to read on my face. My assistant turned to me after the first worship song was sung and said; "Are you OK?" The truth is, I was OK, but I was also worried about my sermon. But then I heard this voice inside of my head (maybe it was from God) say;

Just Plant A Seed...

Every preacher's main job, every communicator's main job, every teacher's main job, every evangelist's main job, every person who wants to share the gospel with a friend's main job, is to simply plant a seed. What is a seed exactly? A seed is the essential DNA of life for a plant. The essential DNA in a seed has lain dormant inside the seed for an indefinite amount of time. Only one of these little life clusters needs to be planted. Only one. A great Sequoia tree can burgeon to life from just one seed. A seed is a tiny ball of inert energy, that, pinched between two fingers, and released into soil, begins to set in motion the symphonies of the universe, the building blocks of life.

Now, let me talk about what a preacher's job is not. A preacher's job is not to cultivate the soil. A preacher's job is not to fertilize the soil. Cultivation is a task that God has sets in motion, usually many years before the seed gets planted. A preacher's job is not to plow the ground or to make a hole in the ground for the seed. One might argue that creating an open space for growth is the job of the morning Scripture, the hymn, the music, the choir, the setting, the space, the stained glass windows, the worship band - but not the preacher. The message giver has only to...

Just Plant A Seed...

This past week I saw a very inspirational interview of former professional golfer named Dave Stockton, who was talking about his master techniques involved in helping players become better putters (forgive the change of imagery from farming to golfing, but stick with me). Dave said that most putters, most golfers, think about too many things when they get up to make a putt. They think about wind current and ground conditions and ball velocity and humidity and a thousand other things. Dave has learned that these other thoughts are very destructive for golfers. "Don't think about bad conditions, don't think about the crowds, don't take advice from others, don't worry about how the ball will role. Just put the ball in the hole." Just do one thing...

Just Plant A Seed...

All For Now,

Monday, November 28, 2011

To Be an Angel

I don't know how most pastors do it, but I begin thinking about my Christmas Eve messages a couple of months in advance of the big days (for us the days are Dec. 23 & 24). All messages are important, Christmas Eve is very important. It's sometimes the only chance a church has to convey the gospel in a hopeful, relevant and meaningful way for an entire audience of people who only come once a year.

So, the theme that I have been hashing out in my mind, over the past few months is that of Angels. Yes, this Christmas I want to talk about those gleaming, white, be-winged visages who mysteriously appear throughout the Bible.

I know, I know, I hear you. Angels are so passe, and frankly a little weird. Angels, in today's world have become a unique form of their own idolatry. Angel fetishes and icons are a hallmark of Hallmark stores and a focal point of New Age focus. I know, I feel the same way. However, in this season of challenge and economic recession, a real interpretation of Angels may be helpful to people, as heavenly beings we can learn something from. The hope that angels offer the world, the mission that angels give people from God, the singular focus on pointing people to Christ, is what we must do if we are to live out the call of God correctly in our lives. We need, "To Be Like the Angels", in a world that is so lost and fallen.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible about angels is found in the book of Judges - it's the story of Gideon. The text begins with a description of how far the Israelites have fallen from God's grace and God's vision. The Midianites are ravaging the land. One day, a boy servant by the name of Gideon is secretively threshing out wheat in a winepress, to keep his meal from his oppressors. The image of a scrawny, sad, dirty, Oliver Twist-like character comes to my mind, when I think of Gideon the way God finds him. The Bible says, "The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah," and simply observed Gideon for a little while. After watching him for an uncertain amount of time, the angel simply says, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior." (Judges 6:11-12).

Gideon replies with incredulity, uncertainty and a lack of hope. "If the Lord is with me, then why is my life going so badly [sic]" (Judges 6:13). Gideon's reply is the is the cry of the world right now.

The angel then gives Gideon a great task. "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand." (Judges 6:14). Gideon argues back and forth with the angel for a good chapter or two, but God's messenger sticks with his primary task: encouragement, hopefulness, purposefulness.

Our task, our role as Christ followers is similar to the role of angels in the Bible. God wants us to meet people at their places of challenge. God wants us to simply "be a presence" in that place of challenge, before we even say a word. Then, at exactly the precise and right moment (God will tell us when that is), we are supposed to encourage the people we interact with. Most of all, people need to hear that "God is With Them" (Emmanu-El) God is with us in our uncertainty, our pain, our fallenness, our confusion, our alacrity, our finite selves. Finally, God wants us to give people something more to live for - a great mission to be a part of. God wants us to send people, "In the strength that they already have," to do great things for Him, and for the world

So, that's where I am going on Christmas Eve. Any comments or thoughts from you all are welcome as I process this message.

Log in with me for the next three weeks as I continue to explore how you and I can, "Be Like the Angels" this Christmas Season.

All For Now,

Monday, November 21, 2011

Four Minutes After the Hour...This is God

The other day I was listening to the one classical station we have on the Central Coast (actually a pretty good one), and I was amazed to encounter something I have never heard before - an overzealous classical disk jockey - a Shock Jock Classical DJ. Now, I have heard many, many overzealous shock jock rock and roll DJ's in my life. Pushy DJs on rock radio stations are as common as blow up santas in the garden department of Walmart, or musical appearances by Taylor Swift at the American Music Awards. Rock DJs who spit out their words like bullets from a Saturday Night Special handgun are the norm not the exception. However, I have never heard an "in your face" classical DJ before.

The introduction to the classical song went something like this. "Four minutes after the hour, this is classical station, KSLO, and I am your host, Julia Flintoff (it wasn't Julia Flintoff, but it could have been). For the next hour we will be listening to the music of Max Bruch." Wow, I thought to myself, I love Max Bruch. I couldn't wait! "Here is music from his second symphony played in B minor by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra." (Play music). Then, literally 30 seconds later the classical DJ broke in; "Max Bruch grew up in a small village in the Black Forest of Germany, he was the child of gypsies and Moravian monks. Here is a little bit more of his music." (Play music. Sublime sounds). And then 30 seconds later, the DJ broke in again; "Max's mother was a Hungarian immigrant who never learned to read..." you get the picture. This regular interruption from the DJ would have been mildly amusing if I had not really wanted to hear Max Bruch, and not the commentator talking about Max Bruch. After about 10 minutes of listening to the commentator talk about Max Bruch, rather than listening to Max Bruch, I simply turned the channel to another Shock Jock DJ, on another bandwidth, on another radio station.

So, here's what I have been thinking about this week.

A lot of people come to church each week and they want to HEAR GOD. These people have had tiresome, belabored weeks - filled with work stress, marital struggles, family crises and financial woes. At the end of such weeks, all they want to do is to HEAR GOD. Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is they hear about God. Often, it is the case that well meaning but over bearing pastors, lusty choir directors, ambitious stewardship chairmen, impassioned missions team coordinators tell people about God, when all they want to do is to HEAR GOD. Like an overzealous DJ, each opportunity for a real life God connection gets interrupted by an explanation of God, and then, like I did they turn the channel to some other radio station with some other series interruptions.

So, here is what I am working on in my ministry. I am going to help my listeners HEAR GOD, and not about God. I am trying to remind myself this next week, when I lead church, to simply sit back in the studio (sanctuary, worship space) and let God speak. On Sunday, I will quietly introduce God and then go sit down; "This will be God for the next hour speaking to you," (play music).

All For Now,

Monday, November 14, 2011

Don't Get Into the "Winning Game"

So, I am a little depressed this morning, since my favorite football team, The Boise State Broncos, just lost a decisive game to Texas Christian University this weekend (I say this with all deference to the Hornytoads), and by doing so, disqualified themselves from any chances of being a part of the BCS National Championship Game. The end of the game was epic and poetically painful in it's conclusion, since the loss was a result of a missed field goal kick, a near mirror image of another game to the University of Nevada just a year before. In reading the post game commentary though, I loved what the head coach of the Boise State Broncos, Chris Petersen, said of his team's loss; "This is real-life football. You don't win all of your games all of the time, as much as we've done that a lot here..." Essentially what Petersen was saying is that losing is a part of playing football. Not every weekend is a win. No matter how good your team is, no matter how many games you've won before, eventually, everyone everywhere is going to lose a game or two.

One of the big traps that I see a lot of churches and pastors fall into is the idea that every Sunday, every sermon, every program, every weekend, every stewardship campaign, every outreach effort must lead up to a big win. I have come to call this tendency - "The Winning Game." The Winning Game is the commonly held belief that there must be forward progress, upward growth, higher trajectory, increased numbers in every single church event or experience. The problem is that this church philosophy simply isn't realistic. Most importantly, this approach to religious leadership isn't, in the end, very Godly.

Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with one of the people that I respect in ministry, Dr. John Huffman, former senior pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, California. I was, I am embarrassed to admit, waxing lyrical with John all about the successes and the "wins" of Highlands Church. After a moment, John said, "You know, I am really happy that you have had so many successes there. But you know...(and he paused) things won't always go quite as well as they are now there." At first, I sort of was taken aback. What a naysayer, I thought to myself. What a Grinch. But, then he followed up and said, "You can't always have growth, growth, growth. You can't even expect it all the time. If you do expect it, you will eventually just go insane." John Huffman was right. What John was actually saying was very similar to what head coach Chris Petersen said, "This is real life football....you don't win all of your games, all of the time..."

This is real life church....you don't win all of your games, all of the time...

One of the big frustrations that some people had with Jesus' ministry is that he didn't "win" enough. Really, it's true! Even though Jesus fed thousands of people, healed multitudes of followers, and performed unbelievable miracles, there were some who wanted Jesus to win even more. There were a group called the Zealots that wanted, expected, Jesus to win at every juncture. Their hopes were that Jesus would take up where Judas Maccabeas left off. Their dream was that Jesus would ride into Jerusalem, at some juncture, and take back the Jewish temple, overthrow the Roman palace, and establish the kingdom of God here on earth. For the Zealots, "winning" was something that happened in this time and in this place.

Jesus, of course, ultimately won through is death and resurrection to life through the cross. However, thankfully, while He was with us for those brief 33 years on earth, he didn't get into the "winning game." We shouldn't either...

All For Now,

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Apostle Paul Has Died

Those who are regular readers of my blog post know that a few months ago, upon the tragic, but not so sudden death of the great evangelical thinker and churchman Dr. John Stott, I wrote a piece entitled; "The Pope Has Died." Today, upon the news of the tragic, and very sudden death of Dr. Tom Gillespie, former president of Princeton Theological Seminary, I want to offer a parallel piece; "The Apostle Paul Has Died."

This past Saturday night, The Rev. Dr. Tom Gillespie died in Princeton, New Jersey, where, upon retiring as it's 5th standing President, he lived with his wife and family, until he was called home to be with God. Tom was 83.

Tom Gillespie was like the Apostle Paul in so many ways. Though Dr. Gillespie would surely blush (dare I say wince) at the comparison of himself with the great apostle from Tarsus, they both resembled one another in so many significant ways.

First and foremost, Tom and the Apostle Paul were both new church developers. Dr. Gillespie started a new church in the 1950's in Garden Grove, California. Like Paul, Tom started a church in a town where a great and flashy preaching figure (in Tom's case it was Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral) held sway in a very popular neighboring church. Tom had Robert Schuller, Paul had the fiery orator Apollos. Both men encouraged their followers not to listen to the flowery oratory of their would be rivals. Both men were momentarily overshadowed by their counterparts until the more sobering tonics of time and age had a chance to even the proverbial scales of balance.

Tom and the Apostle Paul both took strong moral positions and stands on sexual libertinism and homosexual promiscuity. From my own vantage point, I can say that I feel the world is a much better place because of their forthrightness and verbosity about the Christian faith's foundational stance on these issues. However, in similar ways, it could be said that neither Paul nor Tom always articulated their well grounded and bitterly fought positions with the most poetry or rhetorical dexterity. Sometimes it seemed, in an effort to make a difficult point, both men had the tendency to lose sight of the individuals who's lives were effected by their strong stances. The final product was, in the main, positive. What was occasionally lacking in the area of prose on issues of same sex fallenness, was always made up for in courage and pure resilience in the communication of such doctrines.

Tom and the Apostle Paul spoke in similar ways. They both could say things in ways that were so utterly brash and forward that an unintended heir of comedy and humor would often occur. One time, a friend of mine from Princeton Seminary asked Tom for the best advice the president could muster for a future pastor. My friend, expecting the usual platitudes about "keeping your head up," or "sticking close to the text," was flabbergasted when Tom Gillespie said; "Are you listening? I want you to remember this young man. The best advice I can offer for a future pastor is 5 words in length...keep your pants zipped up!!!" I believe my friend has actually kept that very good advice in his ministry and his life. Tom Gillespie can be thanked for so many similarly pithy, strong statements about life and faith.

The most powerful talk I ever heard Tom Gillespie give was at my own graduation as an MDiv from Princeton Seminary in 2000. Tom was offering the perfunctory parting words of encouragement from the President. Dr. Gillespie, referring to a great English statesman's rise to power (I think it was Lord Mountbatton), told this story. "Once a young politician visited a great preacher to talk with him about his career trajectory. The preacher asked the young politician, 'What are your plans for your life? The politician said, 'I plan to get elected mayor.' The preacher then asked, 'And then what?' 'Well, after that I am going to get elected to the governorship.' 'And then what' asked the preacher? 'Well then, I am going to be elected Prime Minister.' 'And then what' asked the preacher? 'Well then, I guess I will die.' 'And then what' asked the preacher? The preacher then looked the politician in the eye and said, 'That my young friend is the most important question of all to answer...what comes after death...and then what?'

My mentor and pastor and former president of Princeton Dr. Tom Gillespie will surely now, at this juncture of certitude and finality, have no trouble answering the question that he posed in his memorable commencement talk. Tom surely now knows the answer to the question, 'And then what?' Thanks to Tom's ministry and his pastorate, thousands of others can have the same assurance as they arrive at an answer the same question.

All For Now,

Graham Baird
Highlands Church
Paso Robles, California

Monday, October 31, 2011

7 Billion of Us

It's official. There are now, as of today, October 31, 2011, 7 billion people on the face of the earth according to estimates provided by the Official Bureau of Demographers at the United Nations Population Division (or OBDUNPD for short). In case you have grown numb, as I have, to the size of actual numbers, 7 billion in numerological terms looks like this; 7,000,000,000. (By the way, talk about a thankless job. "What do you do for a living?" "I count people...")

But actually counting people, or rather, the important idea that ALL PEOPLE COUNT, is the main thing I want to write about this morning.

Not too long ago, I was visiting the Walmart in Paso Robles where I live. Visiting may not be the right word since it was a Saturday afternoon, in the middle of the summer, and the string of people in front of me in the garden department looked more like a ticket line for a Coldplay concert. I stood in the line, frustratedly gazing, and cursing under my breath, at all of the people in front of me, and, I will admit, reminiscing about the lines that are inscribed on the tablet of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your lame, your tired, your broken your poor...". ("Yes," said to myself, but why do the lame and the tired and the broken and the poor all have to be in front of me in the line at the garden department of Walmart on a sultry Saturday afternoon.) God will strike me down for that comment. "Forgive me Lord, I know not what I am saying."

But then, like a hand stretching down from the heavens and hitting me on the forehead (eg: "I could have had a V8"), this one sentence resounded and then echoed a hundred times in my brain. THESE PEOPLE ALL MATTER! I am not sure, but I think the words were God's own words, placed in my careless, feckless, thoughtless, and agitated mind.

The reason I think they were God's words is because Jesus said many similar things when he was with us on earth; "Jesus said, let the little ones [also translated as, 'these ordinary people'] come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matt. 19:14)

The concept that all people matter, all 7 billion of us, is at the very center of the Gospel of what it means to be a Christ follower. All people matter. Not just the people in our immediate circle, not just the ones who live in our neighborhood, not just the crew who show up for church every Sunday, not just the ones living on the North American continent, or Europe, or Africa. All people, means all people. They matter, as a whole and they matter individually. Each one person - 1 out of 6,999,999,999 - matters.

But it's more than that. More than simply "mattering", all people are "loved" by God, their creator, who made them, and us, in His image. God put a tiny part of Himself into every living soul that has ever been created. God lived for, died for, and lives for all 7 billion of us.

The poet and philosopher GK Chesterton wrote extensively about faith. However, the concept that all people matter was one of the hardest things for him to wrap his towering mind around. Chesterton took this radically difficult idea to another level when he wrote the enclosed poem about the size of the earth (the pebbles in the brook), the size of humanity (the hairs on our heads...think about that, God knows the number of hairs of all 7 billion people who are currently living on the face of the earth.). Here is the poem...

“I cannot count the pebbles in the brook.
Well hath He spoken: "Swear not by thy head.
Thou knowest not the hairs," though He, we read,
writes that wild number in His own strange book.

I cannot count the sands or search the seas,
death cometh, and I leave so much untrod.
Grant my immortal aureole, O my God,
and I will name the leaves upon the trees,

In heaven I shall stand on gold and glass,
still brooding earth's arithmetic to spell;
or see the fading of the fires of hell
ere I have thanked my God for all the grass.”
G.K. Chesterton

In case you aren't feeling challenged enough in your faith this morning, by simply trying to live out the Law of God through the Mercy of Christ, try to wrap your mind around this one...

All 7 billion of us matter to God, and they should all matter to you and I as well...

All for Now,

Monday, October 24, 2011


I was actually planning on writing a blogpost today which was entitled; "Was the Apostle Paul Left Handed?" (Really, I was...). The piece I was going to write for this week involved very interesting Biblical exegesis I have recently "exegeted" which makes the conjecture that Paul, being a Benjamite (of the tribe of Benjamin, not an updated version of Vegemite...), and of the tribe which was entirely left handed (by many anthropological and archeological evidences), might have been left handed himself. I was then going to make deep and heretofore undiscovered conjectures about how Paul's lefthandedness contributed to his overall ministry and his psychological makeup. But that blogpiece will have to wait for another day. Because, in the intervening period a much more interesting and important item has arisen (go figure...), and that is my conversation/interview with pastor and church growth development expert Chris Yaw.

Chris Yaw is a fascinating person! He is currently ordained in the Episcopal Church (USA), but was very involved with journalism and media, film and TV before going into the ministry. He attended seminary in the UK and in Los Angeles. Chris won an Emmy, while in television, as he says, "along the way." In Chris' own words: "I noticed the huge contrast between the superficiality of the spiritual leaders prevalent in the popular media and the depth and wisdom I was finding among these highly intelligent and lesser-known Christian voices. I remember listening to my New Testament professor and more than once thinking, "Now here's a guy who should have a cable show." [Chris Yaw's picture is shown here in the upper right hand corner of this blog].

Chris is currently carrying on conversations/interviews with pastors from many different church backgrounds and traditions and asking them about what secrets and insights they have about how to help churches grow. Chris is interviewing many very successful church pastors (myself not withstanding...) who have literally grown churches from 25 people to 5,000 in a matter of years. Chris also defines church growth in many more ubiquitous ways than simply numbers - by asking questions about Spiritual growth, theological perspective and business entrepreneurial spirit.

Check out growmychurch.com to listen to and watch some very interesting interviews/conversations with some very successful church pastors and leading church growth experts. My own interview with Chris will be available in a matter of weeks on the same web address...growmychurch.com

All for now,

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jesus Wore Our Cap

I have lived in a lot of very sports oriented communities before, but never more-so than Paso Robles, and the Central Coast of California. I grew up in Boise Idaho, where the Boise State Broncos were, and still are an official member of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy State). I was a chaplain and Campus Minister at the University of Michigan where Maize and Blue literally ran in the veins of students and alumni alike. I am from a Scottish family that loves the Glasgow Rangers in Soccer (Football). But nowhere is more athletically highly charged than Paso Robles.

And athletic symbology is very important here. Sports hats are of utmost significance!

For the first three months while living here, I made the very big mistake of wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. Not only are the Yankees reviled here, like they were some Afghani militia intent upon blowing up our national buildings, but they are generally not liked. I wore the cap not knowing or appreciating the major statement that I was making.

The hat you wear for the team you support is not just a fashion accessory where I live, but it is a mark of territory, a totem of anthropologic alignment, an icon of ritualistic pride.

So, it was a big deal the other day when I broke down, after 6 years of living in Paso Robles, and bought a baseball cap with the insignia of the local High School team - the Paso Robles Bearcats. Don't ask me why it took me 6 years to buy the baseball cap of the home team where I live. Maybe I have commitment issues. But, I dawned the cap for the first time at the homecoming game of Paso High. It definitely felt like a major "coming out" (I use that phrase in the sense of a Southern debutante, and not in the other usage of that colloquialism). When Star, my wife, saw me wearing the Paso Robles Bearcat hat she said, "Wow, you are going Native." What she meant by that is that I was finally espousing the primary belief system of the people that I had come to serve and minster to. I was wearing their cap. Actually, the word "their" no longer applied. I was one of them. I was all in...

What am I driving at?

Jesus Wore Our Cap. After centuries of quibbling about the need for full intervention or comfortable separation, Jesus finally broke down and bought our main humanistic insignia - our personhood, our cap. Ultimately, he chose, to visit the cosmic concession stand. Jesus bought and wore our cap. The cap of our team!

The great miracle of the universe is not that God is great and sovereign and supreme. God is! It's not that God is able to relate with us on an every day basis. God can! But, even the Greek God's (Zeus, Athena, Dionysus and Aphrodite) were able to relate with humans - even though they were separate.

The great miracle of Yahweh is that He not only chose to become human and live among us, like some Mesopotamian deity striding upon the face of the earth. It's that Jesus went native. He lived with us. He was and is one of us. He marked himself in the same insignia that was, and is, important to us (master fisherman, carpenter, rabbinical wizard, theological superhero, miracle worker extraordinaire, friend, teacher, counselor, healer, preacher). After Jesus wore our hat, there was no going back to a comfortable separated distance of a royal, Pentateuchian godhead - three in one.

Jesus was all in...He Wore our Cap...He was one of us...

All For Now,

Thursday, October 13, 2011

You Give and Take Away

Here's a full confession - I am not a huge fan of all the worship music that has ever been written. Here's an even fuller confession, I am not a huge fan of all hymnody (church hymns) that have ever been written either. However, there is one worship song who's theology and lyrics are some of the most profound theology I have ever encountered. There is one worship song who's Biblical groundedness is rock solid and who's consistent theology and solid church doctrine is bedrock and sound. The song I am referring to is the worship tune by Matt Redman called; "Blessed be The Name of the Lord."

And my favorite lyric in this song is;

You Give and Take Away
You Give and Take Away
My Heart Will Choose To Say
Blessed Be the Name of the Lord

I would put the theology of that line of music up against any Wesleyan hymn of the mid 1800
's or Lutheran theological tome of the 1500's - or any stuff that has ever been written.

Last week, Charlie Rose interviewed Gary Player, former international golf phenomenon and sports superstar of the 1970's and 1980's. Gary Player, who was not the tallest player in the game, or the strongest by any stretch of the imagination, was asked by Charlie Rose whether he was the best player in the history of the game; "No, No," said Player, "Not by a long shot. Many other players were much better than I was." And then, Gary made the most remarkable personal revelation; "I believe that my gift for golf was given to me. IT WAS LOANED TO ME FROM THE GOOD LORD. It's the only explanation for my winning that many games. The truth is I am not that good. It was loaned to me, and it can be taken away, just as quickly."

You Give and Take Away!

The theology of "Give and Take Away" occurs throughout the Bible. God seemed to give Moses and the Israelites a vision of their possession of the Promised Land. And then He seemed to take it away when they protested and murmered too much. God gave Job many riches, a happy family, a peaceful and prosperous life, and God, by some strange arrangement with one of the Evil One's minions, in the flash of an instant, took it all away. God seemed to give King David all favor and blessing when he was a humble servant of Saul's and a timbrel singer in the king's court. And then, God took it away when he fell from grace later in his career. God gave Jesus life on earth, fully human, fully God. And, if we are to understand theology correctly, Jesus gave his life away for the redemption of humanity, freely given, freely taken away.

You Give and Take Away!

The theology of God's power to "Give and Take Away" is not the stuff of children. It is much easier to think about our lives as a dualistic struggle between good and evil. Even easier is the myth of the secular world that, "stuff just happens." But Christ followers who have deep down, real life theology, and belief, know that in a fundamental sense, we don't control all the events of our lives. Neither does chance control our fate entirely. What we really believe is that our God is a God who, at least some of the time...

Gives and Takes Away,

All For Now,

Monday, October 3, 2011

Who Is Your Kenite?

This past Wednesday, the weekly Bible study that I teach began a study on the book of Judges. Judges, is of course the great Old Testament "Who's Who List" of patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish faith (Deborah, Samson, Jephthah). Perhaps it is because of the relative heroic status of the rest of the figures of this book that I have always skipped over one of the most important references in the entire chronicle. I don't think I would be overstating it if I said that it is possible that the entire history of Jewish culture, thought, faith, and life owes itself to this unbeknownst group of people. I am talking, of course, about the Kenites...

Who were the Kenites?

The Bible tells us that; "The descendants of Moses' father-in-law, the Kenite, went up from the City of Palms with the men of Judah to live among the people of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad." (Judges 1:16).

Again...Who were the Kenites?

Biblical archeologists tell us the Kenites were a nomadic, "bedouin-like", traveling people who were expert at copper mining and metal work. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, the father of Zipporah, was a Kenite. The fact that the Kenites are descendants of Jethro, a Midianite priest, may suggest that they were not entirely orthodox in their singular devotion to Yahweh as their one God. Their faith, while seminal in Moses' development at the time of his upbringing, wasn't exactly correct, as we would "correct" in our modern understanding of the word. The Kenites were not, as far as we know, flagrantly averse to Yahweh, or ardently opposed to his singularity. The Kenites were within the spectrum of faith, it's just that they weren't really spot on in all of their understandings.

Most importantly, the Kenites were the friends of the Israelites. They supported the Israelites in their expansion into the Holy Lands. Some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that the Jewish people would not have been as successful in their wars against the Caananites if it had not been for the lessons that the Kenites taught the Israelites about how to mold metal, make swords, develop armor. The Kenites taught the Israelites how to work metal and smelt copper. The Kenites were a different people from the Israelites, and yet they were their friends. The Kenites were good neighbors, at a time in Israel's development when they most needed neighbors of any kind. In other words, they were very talented people, who didn't necessarily have it all together in terms of faith, or have all the answers of life worked out. They weren't perfect people. But Israel needed them and both people groups blessed each other through their mutual interaction and community.

We all need Kenites in our lives!

When Star and I first had the honor of starting Highlands Church we sent out letters to all of the people that we knew of to pray for us, or support us. Some 500 letters went out telling our friends and family asking them for their prayer or support in our attempt to start this new church. A few of the people who received the letters were not Christ followers - by any stretch of the imagination (though I hasten to add that they were not adherents to any other world religion or faith system, they just weren't strong believers). However, we asked those people who had faith to pray for us, and we asked those who did not to simply support us (as the Kenites did for the Israelites. While Star and I knew that many of our non-Christian friends did not understand all the nuances of faith, or have it "all figured out", we also felt that in some miraculous and transcendental way, God might accept their support as well. We felt that as we attempted something that was out of this world, in starting a new church, that the one God who had formed the universe and made all humans in his own image, might use the support of all of God's people.

We felt that the God who had helped the Israelites out through the Kenites, by their association and their connection with us, might listen to the prayers of our friends of faith, and see the support of those who didn't have it all worked out. And it would appear, after six years of this incredible church development, that we were right!

Who are the Kenites that God has given today - for support and friendship?

All for Now,

Monday, September 26, 2011

"He Was Beautiful and Brave"

Three year olds are known for their cute, quirky pronouncements. But my three year old recently "took the cake" with a statement that came completely out of the blue, and totally unsolicited. While sitting on the kitchen floor and reassembling our kitchen cupboard for the twelfth time, Haley said; "Daddy, you are beautiful and brave." All week long I have been pumping myself up with the very same phrase - when meetings go long, when financial statements get lengthy, I say to myself - "Daddy, you are beautiful and brave." In fact, I like the phrase so much that I am requesting that it be put on my gravestone someday; "Pastor, father, husband, friend...he was beautiful and brave."

Not that I am thinking about gravestones much, or morbidity in general. I love life!!! But as I have been thinking about it, I have been pondering how it is actually not a bad idea for all of us to take a few moments every now and then, and think about what words we would like to have said about us, when we die, to think about what sentiments we would like to leave the world with, when we go, to think about what we would like it to say...on our gravestones.

I am told that Willow Creek recently did a staff retreat in which they asked all of the staff members to take huge pieces of construction paper, and to design their own gravestones. They asked each staff member to write the words that they would like to be remembered by on large pieces of paper that were later put up on the wall, and reflected deeply upon. (BTW: this exercise definitely lends itself to lots of dark comedy material...as in, and then the whole staff were fired, and then they served up the cool aide...and it is not recommended as a staff retreat exercise unless you have the leadership ability of a Bill Hybels to pull it off, and even then I'm not sure...). Later comments about the retreat were that it was the most meaningful time they ever spent together as a team. And from that moment on, they all Rested in Peace (just kidding).

Church yards and cemeteries around the world are filled with the markers of great and lowly people alike, and tombstones that are equally great and lowly. Here are some famous epitaphs that I like. William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, had as his epitaph; "Cast a cold eye, on life, on death, horsemen pass by." BP Roberts' epitaph was more humorous, simply, "I told you I was sick." Merv Griffin's epitaph reads like a punch line to a joke; "Merv Griffin, I will not return after this message." Billy Wilder's is more narrative; "Here Lies a Writer, But Then Again, Nobody's Perfect." The troops who lost their lives in Burma left an epitaph that reminds us to be thankful; "When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today".

What is it that you most want to be remembered for in the short life that God has given you to live? What one thing, or things, or causes, do you want it said of you, "that's what she/he stood for?" What would you like your life to have meant, when all is said and done. Don't bathe yourself in these questions, but at least ask them of yourself for one mili-second today.

For me, I am still working on the answer to that question. But whatever I come up with, it will be hard to beat - "He Was Beautiful and Brave", from the lips of a three year old.

All For Now,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Follow the Light

On Saturday night, the eve of 9/11, Highlands Church splurged and rented two 100,000 watt beacon lights to cast two sovereign beams into the night sky to commemorate and to give homage to the events of 9/11. The original purpose that the church rented these lights, and made this investment was simply to offer a quiet but meaningful commemoration of the lives lost on 9/11, and to help people connect the church to a relevant expression of people's pain, and a potential place for hope. Little did we know what an incredible experience it would be in connecting people in the community to the light of Christ...in helping people to follow the light.

Promptly at 8:00PM, like the starting of an antique engine of an old model T Ford, the two huge beacon lights were started up, and turned on. Almost at once they sent light beams into a seeming cosmic soup of mist and night sky. From my own house, almost two miles away from the church, I could see the lights cutting through the blackness of the night, like some great peace offering, or a covenant made by some patriarchal tribe from my faith system's past. As the lights started up I could almost hear the Hebrew words, ""CARAT BAREEAT" (cut a covenant) being emitted from their source. Later that evening, people as far away as Creston (15 miles) and Bradley (20 miles) would tell me that they too could see the lights from their own front porches. My own daughter, just 3 years old, squealed with delight at seeing the lights that evening, completely unwitting of what they symbolized or the reason that they existed for the tragedies of 9/11.

But here was my favorite part of the experience. When I arrived at the church at 8:30 to prepare for the memorial service that we would hold there (for the handful of people who would come) there was an incredibly powerful and very organic commotion of energy. It seemed that people from everywhere, every country road and cowboy hamlet around the church, were driving towards the light. I personally witnessed a tow-truck company employee drive up in his rig, get out of the cab of his truck, pull out his cell phone and take a picture of the twin beacons. I saw a cable company utility man pull his van right up next to the church and roll down his window, and peer at the lights for at least fifteen minutes, before wiping the tears from his eyes and driving away. My favorite sight were the image of two high school kids, gang-like in their attire and demeanor, jumping out from two bushes near the church, glancing up at the lights, and then running away, like children who had just tagged an opponent on an elementary school yard and saying - "you're it."

Here's a text that I have been pondering: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his STAR in the east, and we have come to worship him." (Matt:2:2)

Maybe the gospel of Christ really is as simple as shooting up two twin beams on a Saturday night, in the middle of a field, and seeing who gathers. Maybe it is as basic as helping people to see something that is full of light, and God-filled, and redemptive, and transformative, that they have never seen before. Maybe our jobs as Christ followers really are about cutting through the darkness of the places in which we live, and offering hope. Maybe it is all about helping people to just...follow the light.

All For Now,

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Philosophers throughout the ages have enshrouded themselves with the singular question of (=), what it all equals. Descartes imaged that the equals of life might have been the ability to think - "doubt" - "Cogitae Ergo Sum" "I think therefore I equal something." Kierkegaard imagined that the equals of life was some sort of existence of faith, suspended over and above our "Fear and Tembling." Hobbes contemplated the equals of life being, "nastiness, brutishness and shortness."

But all people who have ever lived have wondered about (=).

And most of us know what the equation in life is. For all of us the equation is a little different. But we know the equation. It's always some variant of A + B = C. Or C + D = E, or whatever (I should probably warn you that I was never really very good at math. That's why I became a pastor). For all of us the numerical integers mean different things. "A" for some people is being unemployed. "B" for others is growing up in a single parent home. "C" for others is having a drug addiction. And the integers don't have to be bad or challenging things. "A" could be that you go to church. "B" could be that you like to garden. But what we really want to know is not what the integers are (that's usually pretty obvious), but we want to know what it is that life is all leading to...what does it equal.

One of my all time favorite books is Victor Frankl's, "Man's Search For Meaning." If you haven't read it (and if you haven't, you should), Frankl's book recounts his tortuous and awful existence as a prisoner and internment survivor in the Auschevitz concentration camp, just outside of Katiovits, Poland. Frankl discusses how the experience of being a POW left him completely bereft of any desire to live, or even desire to exist in a world that could harbor and allow such injustices and pain as Auschevitz. Frankl meditated on the complete lostness of his entire existence for days, months, years, on end, as his friends and family members around him all died. Finally, Frankl came to the great epiphany that the most important thing in life was "Choice." Frankl knew that he had a choice to live or die or not. And that in some way, his ability to choose in life is what afforded him "meaning" (hence the title of the book).

To offer a different title for Frankl's book, we could call it, "Man's Search for What it All Equals." And all the people who have ever lived in the history of the world have sought the answer to what it all...equals.

Solomon (SHLOMO), from the Old Testament is the most famous and eloquent example of a sojourner of the elusive (=). Solomon makes the bold statement in the beginning of Ecclesiastes; "Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless! Everything is Meaningless." Put into our modern formulation Solomon is really saying, "Nothing Equals Anything, Everything is Equal-less."

All of this really leads up to Jesus. When you think about it, Jesus is the ultimate equals sign. Jesus would ultimately give himself the designation of an equals sign. Jesus said, "I am the WAY, the truth, and the life." Jesus said, "I am the WAY...the equals sign." I am the equals sign for eternity. You and I (A) plus faith in God (B) = equals (Jesus Christ), (C) eternal and fruitful life.

So, what do you think? Book or no book? If you are reading this blog post and you are a famous publisher, I just want you to know that I have a lot more ideas to share about what the concept of (=) actually equals...

All For Now,

Monday, August 29, 2011

Purity and Fallenness

Let me begin with a big sentence: Purity, in and of itself, has never been all that exciting to me. I took a gemology class in college once, and I remember seeing pictures of completely flawless diamonds. Completely perfect diamonds were completely boring to me. I know of people who spend lots of money on perfectly pure water (Britta, Tynant, the most expensive...Fiji), but that has left me equally unexcited. I can't tell the difference between tap water and Brita (there is a difference with Fijian water:-). And I don't inherently value perfect days, perfect, vacations, perfect cars (whatever), but all of them leave me feeling purely and perfectly unfulfilled. What excites me most is the segway, the convergence, the connection between that which is perfect and that which is fallen...

I remember a story once that Jesus told, of a perfect meal that was prepared. Not only was this a perfect meal, but it was a perfect party. It was "pure" party - it was so perfect. I imagine the meal that Jesus spoke of had the perfect ingredients, and the most incredible table decorations, and the most consummate wines. I imagine that the meal that Jesus told about had perfect dinner guests and perfect music. However, there was one hitch to this perfect meal. None of the "perfect" people actually wanted to attend. Don't get me wrong, all people were invited, but none of the "perfect people" wanted to come. This apparent incongruity between the perfection of the meal that Jesus wanted to serve and the imperfection of the "rudeness" of the guests that Jesus wanted to invite was deeply unsettling to God.

But then, God did an incredible thing. God invited all of the imperfect people to come to the dinner. God invited all of the non-Brita people, all of the un-Hope diamonds to come. He said, "Go out into the streets and invite everyone who is unfit to come to this meal." The exact Biblical story goes something like this;

2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son. 3 He sent his servants to call those invited to the wedding party. But they didn’t want to come. 4 Again he sent other servants and said to them, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look, the meal is all prepared. I’ve butchered the oxen and the fattened cattle. Now everything’s ready. Come to the wedding party!” ’ 5 But they paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses. 6 The rest of them grabbed his servants, abused them, and killed them.

7 “The king was angry. He sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding party is prepared, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. 9 Therefore, go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.’

So, the meal was perfect, but the guests ended up not being so perfect. But that is what is so beautiful about the story. It was the consequence of purity and fallenness, height and lowness, loftiness and degradation, that was so beautiful.

So, that's what I'm going for in my life and my ministry. I'm going for the consequence of purity and fallenness, astronomical heights connecting with indefatigable lows. What is most beautiful about Jesus Christ, our God, is that HE, a perfect being came into our broken and utterly fallen world. It was the convergence of purity and fallenness...

All For Now,

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Movie For One

Last Wednesday night I went to a movie by myself. Actually, I should probably start this blog post by describing the average week of an ordinary pastor. The week picks up on Thursday with sermon writing, and gets busier on Friday with weddings, funerals and weekend activities, and then crests on Saturday with worship prep, and then the week finds it's apex on Sunday. Then, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average on an August afternoon in the year 2011, the week literally plummets on Monday, until it picks up again on Thursday. So, anyway, I went to a movie Wednesday night, all by myself. Haley and Star were in bed. I wanted to see a movie. Downtown Paso Robles was as sleepy as a door mouse on Ambien on Wednesday night. I found myself watching ("The Help" - a great movie, but let's save that for another blog post) the movie all by myself. Really, it was just me, my large bowl of popcorn, a super-sized Sprite, and a massive screen. And I loved it!

As the movie credits in the beginning began to flash on the screen, I felt like the director was offering me a private showing. When there were funny parts in the movie (of which there were many in "The Help"), I hooted out loud, uproariously...to myself...and to anyone who could hear. When there was a part of the movie I particularly liked, I yelled out, "Wow, that's funny. Ha, Ha, Ha!!!" It was just me, after all. It didn't matter who heard me. I wouldn't be bugging anyone. As the movie carried on, I stretched my legs way out in front of me, into the two chairs ahead of me, relishing the lack of complaints that I heard from anyone about my decorum or poor movie manners. It was wonderful!

So, here's what I've been thinking. What if we thought about our faith as....A Movie for One. What if we viewed the God of the Universe, Jesus Christ, who came to the earth, as a visit that was just intended for One...You, Me, whoever. What if we thought, just for a moment, about the death on the cross, our salvation, as being a gift for just one - You, Me. Now, I know that this thought is entirely non-congregational, selfish, self-centered and a little egotistical. Yes, I know the arguments about how our faith today has become too "me-oriented." However, at some level our faith is very personal, it is extremely individual, it is highly focussed on one, by one, by one. Jesus said; "What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance"—Luke 15:4-7.

What this thought has helped me to consider is how unselfconscious I felt in the movie theater that evening, yelling out loud by myself. And how unselfconscious I would like to feel about my faith if I thought of it as a Movie for One. I have been thinking about how free I would feel praying to God, hooting at God, laughing with God about my life, about God's life, if it were just a Movie for One.

All For Now,

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Folding Your Way To Heaven

The last two blog posts I've written have been a tad bit on the serious side. So, I wanted to offer a thought or two on about Spiritual matters that are not quite so heady...

I have been folding a lot of laundry lately. Yes, I, Graham Baird, a hot blooded Scottish-American male have been folding a lot of laundry. And I have been doing it with a smile on m face. Sometimes, I have even been known to strike up a lusty little whistle while I fold away at my house (children's underwear, tee shirts, tube sox, the whole nine yards). I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I have gotten into a big argument with Star and this is my way of getting back into her good graces.

But, No, I am not in the doghouse. No, I am not trying to suck up to my wife. No, I'm not trying to win the award for husband or father of the year. No, I am not particularly adept at making the clothes that I fold fit into perfectly symmetrical shapes. What I have been doing lately is seeing the daily task of folding laundry as a Spiritual act of discipleship.

Let me explain....

Spirituality, as it has commonly been understood throughout the centuries by Christians has often been about the practice of taking ordinary and mundane tasks associated with life, and finding a deeper meaning in them. John the Baptist searched for locusts and wild honey in the desert as a Spiritual task. Moses heard God's voice while shepherding a flock on the far side of the desert. Paul developed a sense of Spiritual rhythm while erecting tents for wealthy business class people.

The Bible is rife with other examples of basic daily tasks which people underwent in the first century which had a kind of rhythm and routine to them - Spirituality. It is not a coincidence that Jesus chose mostly fishermen to be the very first and innermost disciples in his ministry. Fishing in the first century was always partly about fishing but mostly it was about mending nets. The nets that the disciples used were called AMPHIBLESTRONS and they required hours and hours of tying tiny knots and mending holes. This, I believe, was a dynamic of spiritual growth for the disciples. It required patience and attention and rhythm and cadence and assiduousness for them to fix the nets. Ministry requires the same kind of attention.

One of the historical figures I have always looked up to, though have never emulated from a Spiritual or theological standpoint has been Mahatma Ghandi. At the very core of Ghandi's social revolution was the concept that Indians should spin their own broad cloth rather than purchase cloth from Great Britain. Spinning their own broad cloth required Indians to spend many hours at their own weaving and spinning looms, putting fine threads together. The image of Ghandi on his knees spinning raw cotton into thread has become an emblem of his spiritual and national revolution. So important was the spinning loom for Indians that they placed it on the very center of the Indian flag.

I have always felt that one of the reasons that the women of the first century Judea were so much at the center of social life was because they spent so much time collecting water. Water retrieval around the year 1 AD was, and it still is, an act of belabored love and attention. The women, and it was always women, would walk many miles to a well. They would wait in line to fill their buckets or jars or flasks, then they would walk all the way back to their villages in the hot afternoon sun. This regular, rhythmic, cadenced, activity must have helped many of the women who surrounded Jesus have a deep sense of Spirituality. In one story that we know of, Jesus meets a by a well, helps her to find the kingdom of God. "The Samaritan woman said to him, 'You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?' (John 4:9).

So, I am going to keep folding. I will fold and not protest about it. I also won't brag about the amount I have been folding. Please don't offer me any praise for this web-blog. That might detract from the Spiritual quest that I am on. To be honest, I find the act of folding laundry somewhat soothing. Probably the reason I don't mind it is because I am not forced to do it, and have found a spiritual reason for it. But as an up-shod, folding the laundry in the house isn't hurting my marriage too much either...And I am getting a lot of clothes folded at the same time.

Wash on, Wash off...Fold in, Fold out...

All For Now,

Part of the reason for my increased domestic

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Just Come Along, It Will Be Good For You"

I want to tread for a moment, ever so carefully, into political waters, but only in order to make a larger point about evangelism. Highlands, as you may know, is assiduously a-political, and so are most of it's pastors. We never talk about party or political affiliation, we never promote one party or another, we do speak strongly about moral issues, but not from a political standpoint. We are a-political not because we don't believe strongly in politics. Nor do we feel that politics aren't very important. But most of all we feel that calling ourselves followers Christ is our first and most important calling.

That said, I just heard a powerful illustration about the import of reaching out to people when they are in a time of need, and inviting them to "just come along," simply because it will be "good for them" to be in attendance.

Throughout the entire 1960's, former Secretary of State James Baker III was an active member of the Democratic party in Texas. James Baker had worked with Lloyd Bentzen and others in the Democratic political establishment of Texas in order to further the causes that he felt were near and dear to his heart. Towards the end of the 1960's James Baker's first wife, Mary Stuart McHenry was diagnosed with a very scary, and what would turn out to be terminal case of breast cancer. James Baker was, of course, grief stricken and comatose with fear and dread over the potential loss of his life's soul mate and wife. Mary would eventually succumb to the ravages of breast cancer in 1970. James Baker became a broken man. Nothing could console him. Nothing would pull James Baker out of his sadness and depression.

One day, a man named George Herbert Walker Bush (he was then known as he is now by his two middle initials H.W.) connected with James Baker at the Houston Country Club. From across the room H.W. could see that James Baker was enshrouded with a cloud of grief and that he carried a heavy weight upon his entire countenance. H.W. strode across the room and said, "James, you don't know me, but I'm George Bush, and I knew your wife, and I am so sorry for your loss." "Thank you," said James Baker. "I know that she was an amazing woman and there will never be a replacement." "Thank you" said James Baker again. "There is one thing I wanted to ask you, though" said George Bush, "and that is if you would be willing to come this afternoon with me to a rally I am hosting for my run for US Senate." "Oh, no, thanks" said James, "I don't think so, but also, remember I am a Democrat not a Republican." "I know," said Bush, (and then he said the words) "But...Just come along, It will be good for you." For some unknown reason James decided to attend that rally that afternoon - that it couldn't hurt to go to a rally, that maybe it would actually be good for him. And so he went...and the rest is history. James Baker eventually joined the Republican Party and became one of the most influential Secretaries of State of the past century.

Obviously this illustration, told in the midst of one of the most divisive political seasons in the United States' history, cannot be seen in an entirely a-political, non-political light. Obviously politics today is as loaded as a cruise missile, and unfortunately, nearly as dangerous. However this story, for me, is such an important example of the power of just inviting people along to something. People don't have to understand why they are attending an event, or a small group, or a church service, or a worship night, or a weekly Bible study, or whatever. The only important thing is that we "invite people along" because it will be "good for them." And what is also exceptionally important as people are "invited along" is the transformative impact of being a part of a larger group of followers, of believers, of people who offer hope and joy and perspective.

So, invite someone to "just come along." Tell them, "It will be good for them." Who knows, you might just change history in the process...

All for Now,

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Pope Has Died

Before I start any sort of international wave of misinformation, I should clearly state that the current sitting pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict is just fine, as far as I am aware, and is in good health - sitting at his desk in the Vatican. However, another pope, the once named and so-called pope of the evangelical movement around the world has passed away - Rev. John Stott has died at the age of 90.

Rev. John Stott died at the age of 90 at 3:15PM at his apartment near All Souls Church on the West End of London this past Wednesday afternoon, July 27, 2011.

A recent commentator once bemused that if the evangelical movement in the world had a pope, it was surely be John Stott. John Stott lived at a time in England when it wasn't at all kosher, or as the Brits would say, "pucka" to be an evangelical. Stott clung fervently to core principles of the orthodox faith (orthodox in this context meaning the original Reformed faith as encapsulated by Calvin). For Stott these included; "the authority of scripture" the "centrality of Christ", and the transformational impact of the cross.

To give you an idea of the towering figure and influence on Christianity that Stott was, and conceivably shall remain, keep in mind that Billy Graham just recently issued a statement after John's passing that; "The evangelical world has lost one of it's greatest spokesmen, and I have lost one of my close personal friends and advisors. I look forward to seeing him again when I go to heaven." Rick Warren flew to John Stott's bedside regularly during Stott's later years of infirmity and always heaped heavy praise on his contributions to evangelical thought through the years, especially through the writing of Stott's 50 books about the nuances of evangelical thought. Time magazine recently named Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the past century.

Perhaps the highest testament to Stott's impact on the world was his ability to speak to and communicate with people outside of the faith. Stott was a true evangelist. One of the most poignant essays about Stott was recently written by conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times. David Brooks, a man of Jewish cultural heritage, and at least until recently, a professed agnostic on issues of religion, said that Stott's great contribution was his ability to think about and communicate paradoxes. Stott, according to Brooks, loved paradoxes. Stott was always thinking about questions like:

* If Jesus was always so humble, why was he always talking about himself?
* How are we supposed to love others, in the face of a world which often hates us?
* How can we be generous of our resources in a world that is so self-possessed in it's desire to

My favorite things about Stott are his perpetual desire to connect and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ with outsiders. While Stott could, by his own self admission, at times be tone deaf to the nuances, trends and currents of the modern world, he never shrank from a desire to share the gospel with all people. Stott loved India, a completely "other" place, and traveled there regularly throughout his ministry (one of my own friends and mentors, Mark Labberton, traveled to India with Stott in the 1980's). Most of all, Stott, a man of soaring intellectual powers, always sought to communicate intricate details of faith in a down to earth, common and understandable way.

I am closely reading John Stott at this juncture in Presbyterian history as a figure who remained a man of faith, in the context of his own denomination, The Church of England, which was largely liberal. When Stott was challenged to leave his denomination because of pressure by other luminaria of the evangelical world such as Martyn Lloyd Jones, Stott clung to the notion that denominations should remain intact and evangelicals should remain in the fight. This excerpt is taken from Stott's recent biography "Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott", written by Roger Steer: "When John became President of the Evangelical Alliance he told a 'President's Night' event that 'some evangelicals like myself, believe it is the will of God to remain in a church that is sometimes called a 'mixed denomination'. At least until it becomes apostate and ceases to be a church, we believe it is our duty to remain in it and bear witness to the truth as we have been given to understand it. Some of us who do this, however, are thought not to care about truth. I want to say to you with all the strength of conviction that I possess that we care intensely about the truth, because we believe that God has revealed it fully and finally in Jesus Christ."

And John Stott might have added, "not in the life of every and all church experience."

All for Now,

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why I'm a Pastor

About a month ago I remembered what my favorite thing is about being a pastor. About a month ago I remembered why I went into the ministry.

To be honest, it had been a long day, and I wasn't in a particularly affable mood. I had received a series of emails earlier in the day from folks from other communities, who were wondering why I didn't offer more "meat" in my sermons. Why I didn't offer messages with more "depth," more "complexity" more "Je n' sais quoi?" (I actually think the phrase they used was "Je n' sais quoi?")

Then, a very special woman came in to see me for counseling. My assistant told me that her name was, "Jane (we'll call her Jane), she is new to Highlands, she wants to tell you a few things that are on her mind." Now, just an FYI, I never like to hear that someone is just, "coming in to tell me a few things that are on their mind." That could mean so many things. It could mean that the person is preparing for divorce, has problems with theology, wants some Samaritan Fund Assistance, is upset about the volume of music, or wants to discuss details related to the fastest land mammal on earth - the cheetah.

When Jane entered my office, she had a semi-bowed head. I could tell from her clothes and the wrinkles around her eyes and the lines on her forehead and her lack of dental care that she had not lived the easiest life. Her $20 Walmart Jeans still had a tag on the back pocket indicating the size of her waist. Because, as I later found out, about her life-long struggle with annorexia and alcoholism (a double condition that left her wrent with nearly permanent vomiting throughout the day) her waist size wasn't larger than a 12 year old girl's - I think she was a size 5. Her clothes hung on her like the maniqjuin from the Walmart rack they occupied only hours before. But, it touched my heart deeply that she had purchased new clothes for her meeting with me. She asked, "Can I sit down?" "Sure," I said. We prayed - the first thing I usually do with all conversations. She said, "Well, I just wanted to tell you that I love your church, I love the music, I love your welcome team, but most of all I love your messages." "Thank you," I said. "But......" she said, "with a pursed lip, "I want to tell you what I most love about your messages." And then, this woman (and I don't want to generalize or condescend) who probably hadn't finished her high school education, or done much professionally with her life, and who had been married multiple times said, "What I like about your messages is that....I can understand them. I understand what you are saying. Thanks for making them simple enough, concrete enough, tangible enough for ME to understand them."

And then, I remembered why I'm a pastor. Why I went into the ministry. It wasn't to preach sermons with "Je ne sais quoi?" but to connect with people like Jane who never learned to read, but who wants so deeply to be read and loved by the One who made her,

All for Now,

Monday, July 25, 2011


I've been thinking about "holiness" lately, what it means, and how I want to become more "holy" in my life.

But "holiness" is a difficult word to define. The word itself derives from the Middle English word (from the Danish), "Haly" or "Helieig" or "Hal" which means WHOLE. The notion of purity can be found in the concept of holiness - something that is WHOLE, made up entirely of one thing, is also pure, it is purely that one thing. In the Judeo/Christian tradition, holiness has always referred to a sense of elevated-separateness. The things that were/are holy are elevated and separated and set aside for a special purpose. The "Holy of Holies" was the place in the temple set aside and elevated for God. It contained ark of the covenant, which itself contained the most holy and set apart rules of the Jewish faith - the ten commandments. More importantly, however, the "Holy of Holies" was a space for only Yahweh Himself to occupy. Like the name itself, "Yahweh" there was an emptiness and a fullness to holy space in the temple. It was purely for God - it was Wholly for God.

This past week, my wife Star and I were reflecting on the fact that we have been married for 10 years - a wholly unbelievable fact to me. We were remembering that after we had purchased and planned for all of the accoutrements of our wedding ten years ago (the cake, the dress, the flowers, the place, etc...), we remembered that we had forgotten to buy a wedding ring for me. So, we went to the nearest jewelry and asked the store manager to show us his wares. We wanted him to sell us something that was pure, that was complete, that was HOLY. I told him I wanted a pure ring. The manager's face bunched itself up in a smirk and said, "You don't want a pure ring. Pure gold, for example, is too soft. It's too pliable it's too moldable. You want a ring that's a blend. You want a brass/copper/alloy metal which will be stronger." "No," I said, "I want a pure 100% gold wedding ring, I want 24 carrot gold. I want a Holy ring."

Well, ten years into the wearing of my wedding ring, I can say that the manager was correct. My ring has been bending back and forth, getting nicked, getting slivers and cuts in it for ten years now. Actually, I can't even take it off my finger, because my ring has bent all around my finger. But I love my ring. I love my Holy wedding ring. I love that it bears the marks of ten years of my marriage. My pure, holy ring bears the marks of a good life.

Jesus is the holiest thing I know. Jesus is the Holy of Holies. He is pure. He is complete. He is true. He is good. He is completely without sin. He is Whole. And like my pure wedding ring, he is also soft. He still bears the marks in his hands and his feet and his side of the things that we did to him while he was with us on earth. He bears the marks of the cross. He is soft enough to cry at the loss of a friend or laugh at the birth of a child. Jesus is holiness itself.

All for Now,