Tuesday, December 29, 2015
This past Christmas Eve was the forty-third of my life. And all forty-three have had their own magical merits. For most of them, I have experienced the quaint charm and familial Christmas warmth that surrounded the season of the religious settings where I have worshipped. The Christmas carols, the glow of lights, the pine-scented anticipation of what was to come, the singing of "O Holy Night", the raising of the candles at the quintessential moment of the night, and the closing finale of the lusty singing of "Joy to the World" are all a part of what has made these forty-three Christmas Eve moments special.
But to be honest, something in these moments has always been missing for me. Each year, as I heard the Christmas message read, of a peasant family giving birth to a peasant child in an abject and drafty barn, of three astrologer prophets in search of a star, of shepherds who were at the bottom the socio-economic scale and world of Middle Eastern culture there has always been something starkly incongruous about the whole evening. As middle class and upper class Protestant Americans made their way into the bedecked sanctuaries on Christmas Eve, something in the moment, when compared to the first Christmas in Bethlehem, was oddly cacophonous.
This past Christmas Eve at Mission Church, however, was the forty-three year exception. For the first time, I felt that we were somehow capturing a scintilla of what the actual first Christmas was all about. Why did I have this sense? Because Mission Street Church invited the women of the Lighthouse Women's Emergency Shelter in Oxnard to come to our worship service. The Lighthouse Women's Emergency Shelter is a safe space for women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence, substance abuse and economic challenges that they face in their every day lives. The shelter is located in one of the more impoverished areas of Oxnard.
Let me quickly paint the picture for you. We had our Christmas service at the Spanish Hill Country Club in Camarillo. Because of a gift by a private donor and a discount by the club itself, we were able to offer this truly transcendent setting for our Christmas Eve services. As people walked in the door, they were greeted by a table of free CD's of music made especially for Mission Street for all guests. Each guest was given a candle and a program as they made their way past a coat checking station. When they entered the main room, a roaring fire on the hearth with beautifully decorated Christmas trees on both sides, flickered and warmed the room. A crystal chandelier the size of a small swimming pool hung overhead. The room was perfect.
But, as I mentioned in the introduction of this blog post - also strangely NOT what Christmas is really about.
Then, right at 5:00, 30 women from Lighthouse Women's Emergency Shelter made their way from the courier vans that we rented for the occasion, to the main room. As they entered the room, with a roaring fire and a chandelier overhead, some of them began to cry with joy and appreciation. "This means so much to us," one of them told me, "This is truly special to be here." During the Christmas message that I gave from the front, all of them sat right on the front two rows. An occasional, "Amen," and "You say it preacher" was articulated by this incredible group women. They were listening like their life depended on it.
Afterwards, one of the women came up to me and said, "As soon as I get my life together a bit, I am going to come to this church. I just love what you are doing here! This is what I'm talking about. Thank you pastor."
As the evening came to close, I had this image and dream that shot through my mind. What if every Christian Church in America, on Christmas Eve, invited in a group of those in their community who were abject or marginalized in some way. What if the hurting, needy people that God first came to in the Nativity story were the same kinds of people that churches welcomed into their spaces this time of year. What if for one weekend during the year, people who were rich and poor, hurting and whole, broken and bound together came together to worship God in an elevated and transcendent worship space. For us it was an example of:
Lighthouse meeting Candlelight
And it was a beautiful thing to behold:
All For Now,
Monday, December 14, 2015
So, even though the rest of America (namely the 24/7 news media), have given Donald Trump almost constant klieg-light attention for the past 6 months of television coverage, I have refrained from any real comment on Donald Trump. Ever since I worked on Capitol Hill for a US Senator as a young adult, and observed the unhealthy interplay between religious leaders and the political landscape, I have always felt that pastors should refrain from any official involvement or comment on politics. However, as I have watched the news coverage of Donald Trump, I do think that one important aspect of his candidacy has been lost amidst the furor over his often radical (and questionable) political views, and that is...
Why Trump Works....Rhetorically
Now, just to give you a bit of my own background - I have studied speech making, speech giving and rhetoric most of my life. I did speech all through High School and won the National Oratory Championship. I did speech all through college and was a National Quarterfinalist in After Dinner Speaking. I helped write speeches, at one point, for the Attorney General of Utah. I have spoken every weekend in church for the past 15 years. I have made the study public speaking my life's main focus. So, why does Trump work?
The reason is because everything that Donald Trump says is channeled through himself. Every question, every comment, every policy idea flows directly through Donald Trump. Here are some recent examples from a series of his stump speeches: "Mr. Trump, what do you plan on doing with the Chinese expansionist policy of taking over islands in the Pacific Rim?" "I plan on stopping them. I am very good at stopping people from doing things. I have stopped the Chinese in business before, and I will stop them again." "Mr Trump, what do you plan on doing with immigration?" "As I've said, I am going to build a wall, I am going to get it done, the Mexicans will pay for it, I will make that happen." When Trump says things like this, what is he doing? He's channeling everything he says through himself.
Compare this to the speaking techniques of every single other presidential candidate out there right now, and it is evident that the complete opposite is the case. Every other presidential candidate assiduously avoids channeling information from themselves. Compare Donald Trump's responses to many of his competitors. When Hillary Clinton was asked, "What does this new climate of terrorism mean for international diplomacy?" Clinton said, "It means that we need a much more robust and comprehensive policy of beating back terrorism at it's roots." The answer sort of leaves you a bit cold. It's distant and theoretical. "Robust" "Comprehensive" - but what do you think? When an audience hears this, they say, "OK...what does that really mean?"
I made a major turning point in my preaching after attending a preaching conference at Mariners Church in Orange County. Mariners, in case you don't know is a huge mega-church that has been extremely effective in connecting modern and ordinary Americans with the good news of Christ. The main thing I learned from that conference was as a preacher, I should funnel, channel all of what I say on a Sunday through myself. This isn't to say that I am the center of every illustration or point, but to say that if an idea or concept isn't real or poignant to me, it won't be to anyone else. As you may notice, in my preaching, I do offer a lot of illustrations from my personal life. This isn't because I think that I am a very interesting person, or want to put myself up higher than anyone else. It's because the modern ear, and heart, always determines the truth of something based on whether it is true for "me personally" - does it ring true. They ask themselves, "How does it work for me?"
I should say that for preaching purists of days gone by, there is nothing more repugnant than this technique in preaching. In my grandpa's generation, an illustration that was focussed on the speaker herself was a bad illustration. I was actually taught to never refer to myself in preaching at Princeton Seminary. And, that by in large, has also been the theory in politics. A politician shouldn't refer to themselves very often. But this is also why most Americans are losing interest in politics, and most traditional denominational churches are dying.
It should be said that many of Donald Trump's other rhetorical techniques actually do not work, and more often than not, get himself into big trouble. The tendency to shoot from the hip, whatever he is feeling at the moment doesn't work. The technique of always tearing down his opponents, while it is often entertaining, does not help him much. The habit of giving long "windy" speeches that go on forever is not a good tactic. You can actually see Trump's audiences fading off to sleep behind him more often than not. But channeling everything through himself is his claim to fame.
Of course, Trump channels everything so much through himself, that it goes overboard. Even a good thing can be overdone. Those moments are where he should learn to employ the use of the most powerful speaking technique...
The Power of the Question
"Well, now, that's a great question...what do you think we should do about that? I'll have to think about that..."
But that's the focus of another blog post...
All For Now,
Monday, December 7, 2015
Sally Kohn, a liberal political commentator on FOX NEWS (for those international readers of my blog post, FOX is the leading conservative and right leaning news station in America). Sally also happens to be a lesbian and a regular advocate for same sex and gender equality issues. She recently gave a TED talk about the topic of:
In this talk, Sally discusses why she thinks liberals and conservatives need to focus more on "transcending their political differences and actually listen to one another" (Huffington Post). In her own words; "For decades we've been focussed on political correctness, but what matters more is emotional correctness. Emotional correctness is the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect and the compassion we show one another. What I've realized is that political persuasion doesn't begin with ideas or facts or data - political persuasion begins with being emotionally correct."
Kohn goes on to say that as a commentator on FOX NEWS, what she has been most surprised about is how kind and how nice her colleagues are. She said in a recent NPR interview that; "Sean Hannity is actually one of the nicest people I've ever met. He's always looking out for people, and there is just about nothing that he wouldn't do for you." Kohn muses that she feels that liberals in America, while in her opinion are more correct politically, are often at the same time more shrill in their delivery of their ideas and tone deaf about them. She says that liberals can be downright rude in the presentation of their ideas. Conservatives are more kind and better listeners, Kohn suggests.
At various different stages of my life, I personally have experienced both liberals and conservatives to be quite unkind at times. As an undergraduate, I went to a liberal arts college in the Midwest that was extremely liberal. The unkindness I experienced from some of my liberal colleagues there still remains with me. If I remember correctly, the local college paper's editorial section labeled me a; "but sucking preppy from Utah - if I ever saw one." At the same time, I have also had the experience of pastoring a large conservative church in the conservative, evangelical bastion of Colorado Springs. Some have said that Colorado Springs is the, "Vatican of Evangelicals". While I found abundant evidence of the kindness of conservatives that Kohn suggests in her TED talk, I also experienced some of the most mean spirited dialogue (and frankly horrible behavior), I have ever beheld. I will never forget one leading conservative pastors in Colorado Springs, told me as a side note over lunch once that; "Conservative Evangelicals Christians are the meanest people you will ever meet".
Of course it is the height of cliche and a resounding platitude to suggest that either liberals or conservatives have the lock on the market of either elevated rhetoric or mean spirited debate. Both sides have a plethora of examples of both. But in this season where the divergence of opposing opinion and disagreement is so great in America, and where the world in general seems more riven with disagreement and anger and fear, perhaps a play out of Sally Kohn's playbook wouldn't be the worst idea. Maybe we need more;
Maybe Sally is right - we really do need to just listen to one another, with a higher degree of self-respect and self-acknowledgment. And when we listen, we should see the other person as someone who has value, and is, in Christian terms, made in the image of God. Their worthiness does not boil down to what they say, but rather, who they intrinsically are.
In the end, in Sally Kohn's own words; "Compassion is a form of trust and faith and hope"!
All For Now,
Monday, November 30, 2015
This week, on a small, rural, remote Scottish island named Bute, around 80 refugees from war-torn Syria will make their new home among the grey stone houses, and "Fish & Chip" shops that flank the icy Atlantic ocean in the capitol city of Rothesay. Fleeing the evil dictatorship of Bashar Al Asad in Syria, while at the same time running the gauntlet of guns and bombs being shot and dropped from ISIS militiamen, around 80 refugees, almost 50 children among them, will find a home in several apartment complexes in the downtown area.
Aidan Canavan, owner of the local Bute Brewery, has probably done the more to welcome the new Syrian refugees than any one else in Rothesay. His company has rented out a local cinema and is planning on showing the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" on Dec. 13. The Bute Brewery will also provide free mulled wine and food for the entire group of refugees. Canavan, a former teacher is extremely excited to welcome the refugee. In his own words; "When I was a teacher, I visited Rwanda with some of my pupils. It took me weeks to recover from the experience. Not a single person we met was unaffected by the genocide. What these families, and many others like them, have endured is beyond our comprehension, and it will be an honor to give them respite and shelter. I am so proud that this island has stepped up to the mark to help."
The island of Bute, once a vacation destination of middle class workers in Glasgow, has more recently become a rundown haven of pensioners, and retired people. The "beach side" resorts and hotels, that once were filled with happy folk-singing and pub-chatter, now have mostly empty rooms, and dreary dining halls. With up to 400 potential Syrian refugees eventually coming to Bute, and with an entire island population of 6,300, the percentage of Syrians will be roughly 6%. With this change, the entire ethos of the island culture stands to become more Middle Eastern than "Tartan and Bow and Bagpipe".
Of course, there are others in the city of Rothesay, and the island of Bute that are less excited about the arrival of the refugees. The local newspaper, The Buteman, has recently had several comments from local residents about the need to, "look after our own poor first." However, these kinds of negative sentiments have quickly been derided by louder and more powerful local voices. The paper's editor, Craig Borland recently wrote; "Mostly, these are just not-very-thinly-veiled ways of people saying, 'I don't want them in my back yard'. Well, I do. I want Bute to be a place where people who come here with little more than the clothes they are standing in can feel safe and at home."
What has also been striking, in this season of political terrorism in Paris and other places, is the reticence of many countries to take in these refugees. Germany, France and Great Britain, at one time leading the way in the acceptance of refugees has decided to put such decisions "under review" until later consideration. In the United States, with the lead up to the November 2016 Presidential election, the question of accepting refugees from Syria has become a greatly contested political fight.
My own opinion is that we, in the entire world, and especially the United States, should take up the example of the small island of Bute. We should all take up and take in these fleeing refugees. Why? Because they are our neighbors. Once Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus then told a story about a man, a foreigner, who was beat up and bleeding and in need of help. Several other people, all of religious background, passed the foreigner by. Surely, above all, the religious people were afraid for their own safety and survival. "What if the foreigner is a terrorist or a criminal," the passersby told themselves. Only one man stopped - a Samaritan - he helped the man, gave him food, and lodging, and even extra money.
This Christmas season, let us allow our higher instincts rule over our baser fears - and in the words of the character George Bailey, who was played by James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" (the film that the refugees will see on Dec. 13 in Bute, Scotland), "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves and awful hole, doesn't he..."
May our own lives leave a hole when we leave this world...
Life is "Bute"iful!
All For Now,
Monday, November 23, 2015
Whenever I get a chance to have an entire day with one of my daughters, in our household we call it a
D3 stands for Daddy Daughter Day.
Actually my hope is that I might be able to start a national trend among fathers who have daughters, and encourage them to have a D3 at least once a month.
It goes without saying that girls having positive and healthy male roll models is a rare occurrence in American society today, and at the same time, so vital for the positive healthy sense of self that young girls so desperately need as they get older. Here is a recent startling list of statistics regarding self-esteem and the adolescent development of girls (from dosomething.org):
* Among high school students, 44% of girls, compared to 15% of guys are attempting to lose weight.
* 70% of girls age 15-17 avoid normal daily activities, such as attending school when they feel bad about their looks (This is also why the recent spate of incidents of one girl ragging on another girl because of their "looks" on Facebook is so detrimental).
* 75% of girls with low self esteem reported engaging in negative activities like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking, or eating disorders.
* 20% of teens (mostly girls) will experience situational depression before they reach adulthood.
* Teen girls that have a negative view of themselves are 4 times more likely to take part in activities with boys that they've ended up regretting later.
* The top wish among all teen age girls is for their parents to communicate better with them. This includes frequent and more open conversations.
* 7-10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school, and relationships with friends and family
* A girl's self esteem is more strongly related to have she views her own body shape and body weight, than how much she actually ways.
None of these statistics should be a surprise to anyone. The signs of their veracity are sadly commonplace on every play ground and high school eating quad in America. But here's the thing. All of them are what are known as "Thinking Disorders". Thinking Disorders are psychological maladies that are, hypothetically, treatable with a strong and healthy input of positive reinforcement and cognitive reprogramming. The best treatment, however, is of course a strong foundation of confidence and a strong sense of self that is established by a child's family system. Father's are a crucial part of a healthy family system.
So, if you have a daughter, take a...
Daddy Daughter Day
Do it sometime this week. The rewards will be innumerable!
All For Now,
Monday, November 16, 2015
This past Sunday, the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral rung out once again. This time, not for an octogenarian pope who died of natural causes - but for 129 ordinary Parisians who were gunned down in the bloom of their youth. They were gunned down while reading papers in cafes, listening to a concert, watching a soccer game, and strolling the be-cobbled streets of Paris. One of the most shocking news facts which have emerged this Monday morning is that many (if most) of the people killed were under the age of 30 - students, artists, young business people, techies, and hipsters.
As an American, and a pastor, I am afraid I don't have any deep truths to offer my blog readers after this tragedy, except, like you, I am alarmed by the increasing strength and resolve of ISIS to move beyond it's own borders to perpetrate such an act, and afraid of what the future may portend for all of us in terms of heightened security, and greater general paranoia. And, like you, my heart grieves for our friends in France.
Oh, there is one other thing...
I am worried about the backlash against Muslim immigrants who are streaming into Europe and the United States. This past Sunday, I told a true story in my morning message (which will be posted later this week on our church website and on Facebook) of a Muslim man and his family who, in 2003 fled the oppressive theocracy of Iran. He found himself in Afghanistan not long thereafter only to be beaten down once again by an 7.45 richter earthquake. Still in flight for his life and livelihood, he made it to the shores of Greece, where he and his family found themselves in the city of Athens. This man (who now goes by "M" because he is still afraid for his life), encountered Christianity for the first time in his life in Athens. The Orthodox churches with crosses on the tops of all of them were a comfort to him. "M" learned about the Christian faith and decided to be baptized. On the morning of his baptism, a Muslim relative found out about the plan and boiled a pot of water and poured it over "M's" head. With scars all over his body, "M" then crawled to the Christian church, and crawled to the altar where he said, "No matter what they do to me, I will love Jesus."
So, in the end, it isn't just France for whom the bells toll...
It is all of us, who must live in a world that is much less safe, and much less sound.
But we can emulate our friend "M" who, upon his baptism, said; - "No matter what they do to us, we will love Jesus"
All For Now
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
This week, I am in Pasadena taking a class for my Doctoral degree, so I don't have much time to write a blog, but I did want to pass along a sweet story that I heard this past week, from a guest preacher at Mission Street.
This past Sunday, David Lange, former youth and families pastor at highlands church in Paso Robles, spoke at Mission Street. He told a story about his son, Devon, who is only 2 years old. He did NOT want to go trick or treating on Oct. 31. For whatever reason, this little guy did NOT want to go trick or treating. Something about the entire thing just seemed awful to this little guy. Finally they convinced Devon to try it. So, he walked up to the front door, and when he rang the door-bell, the door opened, and a person stood there at the door with a bowl full of candy. When Devon saw the bowl full of candy, he pulled out a piece of candy from his own bag and put it in the bowl. He thought that trick or treating was about giving candy away and not getting it.
Maybe the little guy had it right.
Instead of "Trick or Treat" - Maybe it should be:
Give Or Treat!
"From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise" Matt. 21:16
All For Now,
Monday, October 26, 2015
Occasionally, though, a person will want to engage in a deeper question about faith. Occasionally, they will want to know answers to the deepest questions of life. This was the setting for one such encounter this past week. Here is how the conversation went when I tried to hang the banner in a store window of a computer/tech store:
Employee: "What is this banner for?"
Graham: "It's for a new church. Mission Street Church. We meet in the movie theater on the edge of town. We've been going about a year."
Employee: "What kind of church?"
Graham: "Well, it's a Christian church. Bible based."
Employee: "What kind of Christian church?"
Graham: "Well, our origins are Presbyterian, we come from Scotland, but really we have people from all different denominations, backgrounds. We have Catholics...etc..."
Employee: "What does your church believe?"
Graham: (thinking to myself, I really don't have time for all of these questions about God...I have to hang more banners...:-))
Employee: "Do you believe in Jesus? What do you believe about Jesus?"
Graham: (gulp, thinking to myself that this person wants to hear the real stuff about what we believe as Christians...and I have more banners to hang....:)
Graham: We believe that a man named Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. That man was both fully God and fully man. That man lived perfect life. Was the kindest person there ever was. He was the most loving person. Was the best preacher ever. The greatest healer. The greatest teacher. And then he was killed on a cross. Jesus was killed and tortured. In dying, this God/man overcame death, a couple of days later. By dying on a cross and coming back to life again, he reversed death forever. We believe that if you believe in this God/man (Jesus), that somehow our own eternal trajectory can be changed forever. That's....in a nutshell what we believe....
And I will never forget the employee's response....after a long pause....
Employee: "That's CRAZY....."
Graham: "Yes, I suppose you are right. It is a little crazy....but you know, that's what we believe."
Employee: "Well, go ahead, put up your banner over there on the board. I think there is room next to the Yoga sign..."
As I have thought about this exchange, I have pondered the utter "out of the boxiness" of what we Christians believe. This employee was correct, what we believe is CRAZY. To put it in the words of C.S. Lewis, who for most of his own life viewed Christianity in the same way as my employee friend; "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said [that he was God], would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic [crazy], on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse." In my opinion, Christians should just admit to those who are not Christian that, yes, this thing we believe in is...crazy, it's totally radical, and nonsensical...but it is what we believe.
I have also been thinking about how we live in a world today that doesn't really think about this central narrative about the cross, let alone believe in it. Shoot, many Christians don't really believe it. They just go along with it. They never really wrestle with it, or contemplate it, or think deeply about it. They just go along with it.
But they do believe in the rules of Christianity. Rules are easy to believe. The cross is tough to believe. And so, many Christians today are more associated by the rules that we live by than the central belief system (doctrine) of the cross. Entire new denominations have been formed over the rules of Christianity, but few have been formed over the central narrative and question of the cross.
Yet, you do not have to believe all the rules of Christianity to be a Christian. The rules (do not covet, do not drink in excess, do not lust, honor your father and mother, keep the sabbath holy, etc...) are rules from God, but they do not determine whether you are a Christian or not. In my experience, it is best to follow those rules, because following them is a way of living out belief in the cross, and in Jesus. They are a good path of life, in general. Jesus himself said that the law (rules) were an essential connection to himself. But the rules do not make you Christian. Lots of religions have rules. Frankly some religions have better rules than Christians do.
However, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you believe in the central narrative of the cross. Jesus, a God/man, lived and died and came back to life again, and believing in Him can change your eternal trajectory.
The Christian faith, at least in America, is at a cross-roads. Do we want to be associated as a group who has a lot of rules, or do we want to be associated as a group who believes in and lives by an extremely radical, CRAZY, out of the box idea? The Cross. I prefer to go down, if we are going down, by grappling with, wrestling with, clinging to and believing in the cross.
What about you?
All For Now,
Monday, October 19, 2015
Just before he died, the late Swedish writer, Henning Mankell (author of the famous crime detective series - "Wallander"), reflected upon the glacial pace of life that our ancestors lived as opposed to the pace of life that we now live. Upon doing research into the first civilizations to inhabit the earth, mostly stemming from the continent of Africa, Mankell learned that, contrary to popular opinion, civilization did not expand and flow into the rest of the world at hyperbolic speeds. Scientists had once thought that civilization spread into the rest of the world at a "running pace" covering hundreds of miles a year, across land bridges. However, recent evidence suggests that early civilizations only moved outwards at a rate of 5 kilometers per generation. In other words, in each generation, there was movement of only 5 kilometers away from where the previous generation lived. According to Mankell, this is evidence that previous generations moved much slower than they do now.
When you visit cultures that are slower paced than American culture, you sometimes get a feel for how frenetic our lives have become. I will never forget visiting a small Scottish town in the northwest of Scotland near where my Scottish grandmother was from. Not knowing the area very well, I asked a local farmer how far it was to the next city over. He scratched his head and said, "I think it is about half a day's walk from here." "How many miles is it?" I inquired. He scratched his head again and said, "You know, I am not rightly sure. The trouble is that I have never been there before." "How long have you lived in this town?" I asked. He told me his whole life. And then he said, "Never had any reason to go to the next city over. Got all that I need here."
I am taking a class for my DMin, whose central premise is the speed of the world now, versus the speed of the world a few centuries ago, and how we can only recapture a sense of deeper Spirituality if we learn to slow down in our modern life. The speed of life that we experience today has been called many different names by different scholars. Here are a few of my favorites; "the collapse of space and time" (Shenk), "future shock" (Toffler), "the juggernaut...rushing out of control" (Giddens), "the annihilation of time" (Castells). One scholar put it like this, "So now we live in a technological age, computers of unprecedented capacity and speed, and almost instantaneous communication with colleagues anywhere in the world. But I have a question: "When do you have time to think?"
Many years ago, when I did competitive speech and debate in high school and college, my speech coaches used to have a little saying that helped us when we were giving our speeches. It was particularly helpful when we were very nervous in an extremely competitive speech round and were prone to speed up our delivery. They used to say;
Slow Will Go, Fast Is Last
I can still imagine my speech coach using his hand to push the air downward and saying from the back of the room, "Slow Down...." As I slowed down my delivery, I found that actually the whole room became more focussed on each word that I said, and my message was more compelling in the end.
My speech coaches also used to have another pneumonic that was helpful
Check Your Tie, Check Your Fly....
But that is a topic for another blog post..:-)
So my recommendation for this week? Slow down. If someone criticizes you for it, just say, my ancient ancestors moved at a pace of 5 kilometers per generation. If I am going to keep up with them today, I will have to move just five centimeters more, and then take a nap..
Slow Will Go, Fast Is Last
All For Now,
Monday, October 12, 2015
Words are Optional
Having grown up in a fairly rigidly traditional style of Presbyterian worship, I have become used to long encomium-like prayers where the words, carefully chosen over several hours of preparation, are the coin of the realm. Complex words, released from the prayer's basket, like flowers strewn down an isle at a wedding, are how you pray. An example of this would be Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie's prayer at Mark Labberton's inauguration as president of Fuller, a year or so ago; "Dear Lord, whose prevenient power upholds us..." It was a beautiful prayer, but...I can't do that!?!?
But this kind of prayer is not what Jesus had in mind, or many of the early, ardent Christians.
Words are Optional
For the Desert Father's (people who prayed constantly in the 3rd and 4th centuries) the exact words which were spoken were less important than the posture of the heart. And so many of them began to use centering prayer techniques, repeating key phrases again and again and again; "Lord Jesus (inhale) Have Mercy (exhale)", "Lead Me (inhale) Holy Lord (exhale)", "Come Lord Jesus (inhale), Be My Guest (exhale)".
I have personally found the regular prayer of the late pope John Paul II to be helpful; "Totus (inhale), Tuus (exhale) - literally "My Lord - My God". The double "t" sound off of the tongue helps me to push away the world as I center on God. Plus Latin just sounds cooler than English!
Several years ago, I visited the home of a family who had just lost their 26 year old son to a sudden heart attack. The son had collapsed on the floor of the kitchen in the very home where I was now standing. The presence of death still hung heavily in the summer air. I had no words to offer. The parents had no words to speak. And so, the father, began to pray without words. "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba". With tears rolling down his cheeks, he repeated again and again, "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba". The father didn't need words. God knew the pain that he was feeling. In times of painful prayer;
Words are Optional
This morning as I was loading my 3 year old daughter into the car, to take her to gymnastics, she had a bit of a tantrum. After the initial tears of anger, Sheena fell into a kind of rhythmic time of what I would call "tears of release". Imagine again and again in the same tone, the same rhythm, "waaaaa, waaaaa, waaaa." I decided to give it a try myself. I joined her in her crying, "waaaa, waaaa, waaaa". The same rhythm, the same tone. Sheena started to laugh. I started to laugh. We both felt better.
Here's my best advice for prayer
Words are Optional
All For Now,
Monday, October 5, 2015
What is amazing to me about SNL is that they produce such a fantastic show every single week, week in and week out. Sketches that we can still remember and laugh at many years later (Motivational Speaker, Weekend Report, Church Lady...) comedic classics, were thrown together in less than a week. How did this happen? How were they able to corral the talents of so many people into a crystalized show so often for so many years?
This past week, I heard an interview with the Executive Producer of SNL - Lorne Michaels. He was asked how they got ready each week. He said that it definitely was not easy. That corralling so many talented people to produce creative material is a huge challenge. Part of the goal is to be less creative and not more. He said, "I often see my job as the killer of creativity at SNL". The challenge is not to come up with new ideas, but to focus on the ones that you have. As a new church developer, I can relate with this. In a more traditional church my goal was to get new ideas forming (which is almost impossible). In a new church development, my goal is to stop so many new ideas from forming and focus on the ones we have.
It was a comment that Michaels made about the production of the show that has remained with me, however. Michaels said, "Each week we say, we are going to 'air' not because we are ready, but because...
Very often a sketch will not be completely ready, or a set of lines will not be totally memorized, or a particular routine won't really be working, but that show still needs to go on the air. You go with what you have got each week, not what you wish you had.
I can relate to this notion in preaching as well. Each week, I sit down with my staff and talk about preaching concepts on Tuesday. Then, I write an email "Mission Blast" to the entire database which hones in on a key concept or idea for the message. Then, I write the message on Thursday (usually 4 hours of focus and writing). Then I let it ferment for a day. Then, I spend another hour writing on Saturday, and practice the message. Practicing is really a way of figuring out whether a particular idea will work rhetorically. Often a concept will work on paper, that does not work rhetorically. Then, I offer the message on Sunday morning.
I can relate with Lorne Michaels' sentiment. Each week, I go to the congregation with a message, not because it's ready, but because...
What I love about this sentiment is also the freedom that this gives a person's soul. It's not really up to you, as a preacher, or a worship leader, to determine or mandate the direction of a particular message, song, or offering. All you can do is offer it up, and see what happens. And in this way, a large measure of Holy Spirit is also involved in worship and preaching. You do your best, you work as hard as you can, then you give it to God.
All For Now,
Monday, September 28, 2015
Even though the book, "Eat, Pray, Love" does not deal with any overtly Christian themes, I have quoted from it many times in my sermons through the years. My favorite scene in the book is at the beginning when a couple are arguing and things aren't working out, and the main character, a young woman goes to the bathroom, and while she is kneeling by the toilet says a prayer [paraphrased], "Dear God, I don't know if you exist, I'm pretty sure you don't, and I am just talking to myself right now. But I feel a need to talk to you now. I am lost and I have no idea what I am doing..." After the prayer, the main character goes on an Odyssey of self understanding and growth.
Among Gilbert's recent insights are the fact that she probably might never write another book that is quite as successful or well reviewed as "Eat, Pray, Love". And so, she muses, I have the option of just starting to drink every morning at around 9:00AM, or move to the country to "raise Corgies" or to return to that thing which has brought me the most amount of love in my life - writing.
But it is Gilbert's ideas about:
Creativity and Fear
which are the subject of my blog this morning. Gilbert says that as a writer, fear has always been a regular companion of hers. Each day she sits at her computer and writes, and often says to herself, "This will be an awful book, just awful....in fact, it may not only be awful, but the worst book that has ever been written", "I might be the worst writer that has ever lived", "my career will most likely end in failure" - But she keeps on writing. Because writing is her core love, it is her vocation, it is why she was placed on the planet, it is the thing that she loves to do even more than she loves herself, she must continue to do it.
Gilbert has come to terms with the fact that:
Creativity and Fear
are actually siblings. They are brother and sister. They live with one another all the time. You cannot find a creative person anywhere in any genre (art, music, food, architecture, writing, poetry...) that does not experience a regular amount of fear. And so, whenever Gilbert begins a book, she knows that if she wants creativity in the book, which all good books must have, she must also have fear. Fear comes along for the ride. Fear sits in the backseat, as creativity sits in the front seat.
In my own life, I have experienced the conjoined quality of creativity and fear. My seven year old daughter asked me yesterday if I ever got nervous when I had to stand up in front of a church and give a message. I said, "Yes, all the time". Each new church that I have started has been an expression of creativity, and along with it comes a regular amount of fear. "Maybe this won't work", "Maybe we won't get the money we need to keep this thing going", "Maybe my ministry will end in a flaming ball of fire, actually worse, maybe like the universe it will end with a whimper (J. Alfred Proofrock...TS Eliot....)"
Creativity and Fear
I find it interesting that arguably the most creative person ever to live - God - also talks about fear more than almost any other subject. The same God that set the planets in motion, and that separated light from darkness, and water from dry land - creativity - must also have experienced fear. God tells us - creative human beings - not to be afraid around 365 times in the Bible. To Abraham and Sarah, beings that God placed creative life inside of, God said, "Do not be afraid". To the disciples who think they see a ghost upon the lake of Galilee, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid". To the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid."
Perhaps God Himself knows the double bind of this life. If you want to be creative, if you are creative, if you are human, then fear will be a part of your life. But we should not be afraid. For God is with us...
All For Now,
Monday, September 21, 2015
Each morning, I drive my two daughters to school from our home in Oxnard, to their school in Camarillo - about 30 minutes away. To get there, we take Highway 101, which is the major thoroughfare that the Edwards Movie Theater is on. On Sunday mornings, Mission Street Church, the new church that we started less than a year ago, meets in the Edwards Movie Theater. And each morning it is the same, as we pass the Edwards Movie Theater, both of our daughters yell at the top of their lungs...
There's the church!!!!!
I'm afraid it's unalterable. My two daughters' associations with church will always be a movie theater - pink neon lights, movie marquis, the buttery-salty smell of popcorn, and comfortable chairs with cup holders. For them, church is a movie theater, and the energy inside of it. They love running in the huge atrium lobby and shouting out loud as their voices echo on the vaulted ceiling in the entry way. They adore watching Veggie Tales in their Children's Program on a 100 foot screen. They love the bright colors of the movie banners, and the glitzy layout of the candy counter.
There's the church!!!!
When they say this, I beam on the inside with pride. What it means is that for the rest of their lives, my two daughter's associations with church and God and religion in general will be not with a hallowed sanctuary of mystery. They will not think of church people as different than the people they meet with throughout the week in other settings. They will not associate church with a certain way to dress or perceive the world. Nor will it be with a particular mode of behavior or moral code. Neither will they associate church with a group of insiders or power brokers who wield control over the hearts and minds of their congregants.
In a very real way, they will see church as very much a part of the world that we live in. Church will not be a separate entity but a connected manifestation of God's love for the world that is so fallen. They will understand in a very real way that Christ came into the world to live in the world. Christ was not separate from the world but took the world into himself, even as he hung on the cross. There's not an "us" and "them" when it comes to Christians and non-Christians. We are all God's people. Christ came to be in the world, to save the world.
There's the church!!!
And maybe their associations with church will not end with a movie theater. Maybe when they pass a fast food restaurant, they will say:
There's the church!!!
Maybe when they go to college some day, and stroll the University campus they will say:
There's the church!!!!
Maybe when they go shopping in a gargantuan shopping mall, where people are spending money that they don't have, and making purchases that they don't need, they will say:
There's the church!!!
When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in Sunday school, that you are surely familiar with: "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus all across the world, yes, we're the church together."
Pass the popcorn!!
There's the church!!!
All For Now,
Monday, September 14, 2015
However, a sports tournament that took place this past week in the United States points to the probability that one of the Bible's miracles actually happened. In Queens New York, the site of the US Open Tennis Tournament, on a humid blue tarmac tennis court, a match between the world's greatest tennis player ever, Serena Williams, and a come from nowhere player from Taranto, Italy, Roberta Vinci, was nothing less than a modern day story of:
David and Goliath
Now, before I begin the comparison, I want to say that Serena Williams is an incredible individual with a wonderful heart. She has received mounds of unfair criticism throughout her career. So, any comparison I make of Serena with Goliath in this blog is purely about strength and ability, and not any other moral or character besmirching quality.
First, to Serena. She is simply the best women's player ever to hold a tennis racket. She is one of the few players ever, male or female, to have held all four major singles titles simultaneously. She has 21 gland slam titles. Serena simply plays at a level heretofore unheard of in women's tennis. During her tennis match with Roberta Vinci, Serena actually clocked an ace serve at 127 miles per hour. Prior to her loss to Roberta, she was set to win the vaunted calendar Grand Slam (three major titles in one year).
Now to Roberta Vinci. Before her win against Serena last week, Roberta was ranked 43rd in the world. The daughter of an accountant and a housewife, she was born in rural Italy - Taranto. The odds of her winning against Serena, by some estimates were 300-1, and by others 657-1. While Serena regularly hit serves to Roberta at over 120 miles per hour, Roberta's more ordinary serve was around 79 miles per hour. Her advance to the finals at the US Open (a game which she actually lost) was her first major grand slam final.
But it was Roberta's post-game interview after beating Serena which sent shivers of appreciation down the spines of all the viewers; [In broken English with an Italian accent] "I try to enjoy it...I try not to think about Serena...I didn't expect that I win...I just think 'put the ball in the court....don't think about Serena'".
David and Goliath
I wonder if on a windy, wilderness battlefield in the foothills of Western Israel, in about the year 1,000 BC, David didn't say the same thing about his foe; "I try to enjoy it...I try not to think about Goliath...I don't expect to win...I just think..put the rock on the forehead....don't think about Goliath."
David slew the giant, and Roberta (an equally mundane name for a champion) slew the giant of tennis. From time to time, now and then, the Bible proves that it's stories, though hard to believe, are true.
All For Now,
Monday, September 7, 2015
Then, all of a sudden, magically and as if tele-transportation, room will fill up. Usually by the time the second song begins at the start of the worship set, I look out and I see that the room is almost totally full. Where did they all come from? Why did they come 15 minutes into the service, rather than at the beginning of church?
I have actually witnessed this same phenomenon in so many of the churches that I have lead that I have come to expect it. People arrive about 15 minutes into the start of worship, rather than coming right at the beginning. As I have thought about this interesting dynamic, there are several reasons that come to mind.
First, Sundays are hectic times for families, and traffic can, even in California, be a bit unpredictable. Loading everyone into the car can be a challenge.
Second, sometimes the welcoming team gauntlet in a church can be daunting. Especially when you are feeling a bit tender or depressed, the last thing you want is to encounter a zillion people before church. If a person knows that they have to make their way through three greeters, a smiling hand shaking pastor, and then another set of greeters at the front door, they may say to themselves, "What I really want is to worship God, not be glad handed on the front step, so I will come late."
Sometimes people like the anonymity of coming late to a church service. There is a certain joy in being able to just slip in late and leave a little early. I will never forget one man who came to the movie theater in Paso Robles for worship. He would arrive just before the message, and he would leave just after the message. He sat in the darkest corner of the church, so that no one could see him. I will never know his name, but I will also never forget him. From that man's experience I developed a theory about outreach - Anonymity is the key to evangelism, not friendliness.
But as I have observed people coming late to church for many years, I have come up with another basic theory.
People Know What They Want
A person coming on Sunday knows that, most of all, they want a personal connection with God. They want one on one time with God. They want:
* A message that is concrete, clear, meaningful and helps them in their lives
* A time to connect one on one with God in prayer/song
* A communion time that is a personal connection between them and God
What they don't want:
* To meet a lot of strangers who seem overly friendly
* To drink mediocre coffee
* To sing praise choruses or hymns from a choir that sometimes seem redundant
* To hear a lot of announcements
* To be told by a congregant, "I haven't seen you in a while, everything ok?"
* To have to sign up for an activity that makes their already busy week more busy
* To sign a welcome pad or a card
People Know What They Want
This isn't to say that worship music isn't important. It's also not to say that announcements and welcome cards don't play an important roll. Also, people need community with one another, it's just that that can't be manufactured in any kind of artificial way.
If you are leading a church where people tend to come late to worship, I encourage you to see it as a good thing. Don't beat people up for coming later. Don't change the time of worship to meet their needs. They are coming for the important parts of worship - parts that are important and helpful for their lives. And hey, at least they are finding something real in your church
All For Now,
Monday, August 31, 2015
When I was about nine years old, we took a family vacation to visit my Scottish grandparents in Edinburgh, Scotland. The wonderful "foreignness" of how Scotland was, compared to the "ordinariness" of my life in Boise, Idaho made such an imprint on my bourgeoning young soul. The bakeries filled with sausage rolls, cherry-red double decker busses, televisions that were still powered by vacuum tubes, baths that had to be filled with kettles of hot water from the stove, have remained with me through these many years. And yet, it was a lesson that my grandfather taught me that is the topic of my blog post this morning.
Each morning our family would have breakfast in the sunroom just off the kitchen. The chairs that flanked the breakfast table were all rickety, creaky, fragile things from the turn of the century. My brother, who was just four at the time, sat on the most squeaky of them. Every tiny move that my brother made, caused the chair to squeak. The relative austerity of the personality of my Scottish grandparents, mixed with the regular interruption of a squeak on his chair, was more temptation than my brother could bear. And so my brother squeaked. Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak. "Please stop that Jamie," said my mother. Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak went Jamie. "Jamie, that is not polite," said Dad. Squeak, squeak, squeak. It went on for some time, annoying the entire family to no end. Then, my Scottish grandpa made a developmental breakthrough, that is the subject of this week's blogpost.
In a broad Scottish accent, my grandfather said, "Whoever squeaks their chair next will receive a Five Pound Note (equivalent to a 10 dollar bill)." There was all of a sudden an uneasy silence in the room. What was grandpa saying? Was this some kind of trick? Was this reverse psychology? About thirty seconds passed, before Jamie, made another squeak, then, grandpa handed over a Five Pound Note and said, "Congratulations, young man!" And here's the incredible thing. The squeaking stopped for the rest of the morning. Without the tempting fun of doing something that he shouldn't do, Jamie must have decided that squeaking his chair wasn't so much fun anymore.
All of these many years later, I have utilized this same technique to varying effects and levels of success in many different settings. I have used it so much that I have come up with a name for this psychological technique. I call it;
The Five Pound Note Theory
The theory goes something like this. Most aberrant human behavior occurs because of the relative pleasure that is derived from doing something that is socially unacceptable. When the social un-acceptability of that behavior changes, the pleasure disappears, and the aberrant behavior loses it's ultimate power and temptation.
Often in my years of ministry, I have seen kids who grew up in relatively sheltered homes, begin to go through times in rebellion in their teenage years. This often takes the form of nose piercings, and hair color change (red mohawks, purple mullets). Whenever I see a kid go through one of these changes, and knowing the parents were appalled at the rebellious behavior, I have sometimes said to a kid, "Wow, I like that orange hair, you might want to go with more magenta next time though, I think it would work better for you." With a deep level of shock, I have sometimes found that that kid decided that, now that the social acceptability of that rebellion no longer existed, that it wasn't so much fun to color their hair, and so they went back to normal hair color.
Not long ago, I had a man in my office who was contemplating getting a divorce, and having an extramarital affair. This man was convinced that when he told a pastor about his plan, that I would be utterly appalled and repulsed by this plan and that I would scold this individual scathingly. Of course, I would never condone or encourage or think positively about such a course of action in a person's life. Extramarital affairs are very destructive experiences for couples, families and communities. However, I was convinced that this man was actually searching for someone to be upset with his planned action, which in turn would propel him to the very action that he was thinking of doing. So, after he told me about his plan to leave his wife, I said, "Well, sounds like you have thought through this plan quite clearly, and have thought through all of the implications. Yes, I think you are correct, getting a divorce sounds like the right thing to do." Startled, the man said, "What? what do you mean, how could you say such a thing." The man began a course, not long after that, of recommitting to his marriage, and deserting his very destructive plan for his life.
Through the centuries, the Christian church has fallen into many, many traps regarding the decrying of a certain behavior or "sin" and finding that that approach has only created more of a desire to engage in that behavior. In a sense, Christians have created a level of social unacceptability that creates a pleasure center for aberrant behavior. If Christians would, on the other hand, be less focussed on creating these social boundaries, and more focussed on loving the individual at hand, they might find it easier to guide people into healthy decisions about their lives.
Now, don't get me wrong. There is such thing as right and wrong. Sin exists, and is not something that should be lifted up. The Bible is clear about what areas of life are healthy and what are not. The church should stand, in the midst of a world that is lost and in chaos, for Biblical values, and Christ centered living. However, in the approach to the world, we might find that we get further down the road of healthy living, and righteous behavior, if we employed with a little more frequency and a little more thoughtfulness;
The Five Pound Note Theory
All For Now,
Monday, August 24, 2015
I have been thinking lately that all ministry these days is Pioneer Ministry
It's All Pioneer Ministry
I have a friend who is leading a large church in the ECO denomination (Evangelical Covenant Order). When he talks about the challenges of his call setting, he speaks of the loneliness of decisions that have to be made, and the sheer magnitude of work involved in each day at the church. It's on his shoulders, and it will succeed or fail because of his work and providence alone. In many ways, he's totally on his own. It's Pioneer Ministry.
My father is now an interim pastor in a small church outside of Sacramento with the EPC denomination (Evangelical Presbyterian Church). Ironically, it is actually called, "Pioneer Presbyterian Church". Each day my Dad goes to work and thinks about how to get some momentum in this once vital church. He is trying to build a new settlement where there is no church settlement. He's on his own. It's Pioneer Ministry.
Another friend is a youth pastor in a nearby, neighboring church. His youth program is thriving, but his support networks are very thin. His senior pastor is away on extended leave, and his Presbytery within the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church, USA), is without an Executive Presbyter. He's on his own. It's a Pioneer Ministry.
I am now one year into my third New Church Development at Mission Street Church within the PC (USA). It's hard work. My muscles are still aching on Monday morning from the heavy lifting that I did at 4:30AM yesterday of speaker systems, folding tables and musical instruments. We meet in a movie theater because we don't have a building yet. It's often lonely work. There's very little support from the Presbytery, although there are masses of committee meetings to attend on a weekly basis. I'm on my own. It's Pioneer Ministry.
But here's the thing. I just left a very large church in the ECO denomination (by some estimates, the 10th largest Presbyterian Church in the country). But it was also lonely, hard work. The denominational support was scant, if all but non-existent. Each morning when I went to work it was like hitching up a set of oxen to a yoke and a hoe and plowing a field. Large boulders, that would impede ministry growth, would often be in the way of a good harvest, and these would have to be removed in the heat of the day. It was Pioneer Ministry.
What am I getting at. Simply this. If you decide to do ministry in this day and age, if you decide to serve God's people in an effective and dynamic way, you will be doing Pioneer Ministry. It doesn't matter what denomination you are a member of, or what size of church you lead, you will pretty much be on your own. There will occasionally be a pastor who sits beside you and lends an ear to your particular problem or challenge, but you are on your own.
It's All Pioneer Ministry.
But there is a beauty in being a Pioneer. To be able to start something somewhere where no ministry has ever taken place before is a powerful experience. When you read the Bible about other Pioneer Ministers like the Apostle Paul, or the disciples, you can actually say that you can relate to their struggles. Paul was on his own in Asia Minor, and so are you.
I LOVE Pioneer Ministry. I want to underline this, I LOVE PIONEER MINISTRY. Pioneer Ministry makes me so excited, even writing this blog post, I get a happy feeling. And as I look back, the biggest mistakes I have actually made in my ministry were to rely on denominational or other structures that were in place that gave a false sense of assurance or support. It's better to hoe your own hoe, row your own canoe (to mix a metaphor).
And I'll tell you what, when you are sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch of your church equivalent to a small log cabin at the end of a hard day of work, with a corn cob pipe in your mouth, and you look out on the field and see what the oxen of the Holy Spirit and you were able to do together in the heat of the day, you feel a deep sense of pride and honor. Instead of the sound of horse shoes being stamped out in your ear, you can hear a strong but steady voice from the Holy Spirit in your ear, saying - "Well done! Carry On!"
Be a Pioneer! Build something that people generations from now will remember and appreciate.
All For Now,