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 don't win all of your games, all of the time..."

This is real life 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