Monday, January 26, 2015

The Denominational Academy Awards

Last night was the first of the main movie/actor/director awards programs of the season - the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAGA).  And once again, for some unknown reason, the remote control to my TV was somehow inexplicably drawn to stop on that particular channel and watch the show. As usual, the room was filled with bubbly, beautiful, actors and actresses, perfect couture dresses, immaculately tailored tuxes and the usual giddy frivolity and decadence that surrounds such events.  You've seen these shows many times.  And now, there isn't just one of them - the Oscars.  There are numerous awards events (The Golden Globes, the People's Choice, the Grammys, the Emmys, and many others).  By the way, the official Academy Awards isn't until Feb. 22, in case you want to mark your calendars.

As I was watching the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night, I was reminded once again, just how  beautiful and yet how boring these events always turn out to be.  On the one hand, there are the stars, the movies, the clothes, the glamour, the glitz - which is sort of fun to watch.  On the other hand, there are the speeches, the tributes, the tearful thank-yous which are about the most painful, plodding long-winded diatribes that were ever uttered.  They always go something like this:

"I can't believe I have just been given this award.  It means so much to me.  And I am in such a rarified group of competitors for this award.  Well, I want to thank the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Equity acting company, my incredible production team, the directors of the film Harvey Weinstein, the make-up artists...and most of all my mother…."

After about 20 of these speeches, you can almost recite them from memory.  And then it occurred to me.  Nobody in TV land (you and me and 30 million other people) really care about all of the Guilds, the Actors Unions, the Directors Unions, the Producers Unions.  We don't care.  We know they exist, but we would really rather not hear about them at all.  We watch the shows to see the movie stars and to observe the banter.  However, even though none of these Actors unions matter to you and I, it is quite clear that they matter a lot to the "insiders".  The actors, directors and writers clubs and guilds matter a lot to those who are a part of them every single day.

And then I stumbled upon a revelation.  The central theme of this blogpost.  Actors and Directors Guilds are actually not that different from Religious Denominations these days.  For people who are intricately connected to the workings of Religious Denominations, Denominations matter - A LOT.  It matters a lot to "insiders" whether you are a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) or the Missouri Synod Lutherans (MSL).  It matters a lot of to "insiders" if you are a member of the Southern Baptist Denomination, or the American Baptist Denomination. It matters a lot to "insiders" if you are a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO), the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).  But here's a newsflash - it doesn't matter at all to "outsiders".  Actually, those outside the church (people who are dechurched) actually find the conversation quite annoying and boring.

Just imagine what a Denominational Academy Awards Show might look like:

"Wow, I am so excited to get this award.  I want to thank the other denominations here tonight who are our competitors, what an amazing field of contestants.  You are all so wonderful.  Most of all I want to thank the OPCA (The Orthodox Presbyterian Church of America), and more specifically, the PNC and the COM Committee and the CDC have just been such a help to us as we have put together this worship service.  This means so much to me, most of all I want to thank my mother...."

For outsiders to the faith, these kinds of conversations offer the same level of a comatose inducing stupor as speeches by actors at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  They seem so important to the "insiders" but to "outsiders" they just wish that the church would get on with worshipping God, doing mission, loving neighbors, doing more baptisms, and helping more people.

What am I really trying to say?  Of course denominations matter.  Of course they do.  Of course there are significant differences in the way that various denominations conduct business, think about orthodoxy, make decisions, include or exclude women, interpret the Bible, and a whole range of other issues.  It's just that incessant chatter about the internal mechanics of a denomination are often the very thing that pushes away and even repulses unchurched people.

"Before I close this blogpost, I just want to thank all of the people who made this blogpost possible…."

Or not:-)

All For Now,

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Dream Revisited

As a Scottish-American white male (a WASP if there ever was one), I want to very humbly and carefully wade into the waters of race in America on this Martin Luther King weekend.

I am quite elatedly serving as a pastor in one the most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-faceted communities in my entire ministry.  Just one hour north of Los Angeles, Camarillo, and Ventura County (while not the most multi-cultural place in LA) is very diverse.  Oxnard, just to the north of Camrarillo boasts a population that is almost 80% hispanic.  As a person who grew up in Boise, Idaho in the 1970's and then Salt Lake City in the 1980's, cities that were as Wonder Bread white as can be, living in the same space as people from quite literally the entire globe is quite exciting.

Just last week, while taking my 6 year old daughter to school, I met a young dad from Hydrapradesh, India.  His name was Hari (pronounced HADI).  I learned that he works for a major tech firm in WeltsLake Village, and studied in Bangalore, India before that (the Silicon Valley of India).  It was so refreshing to talk to him.  Rather than the bland conversational pleasantries that I usually encounter with people who have grown up in the West ("Good morning, how are you, how's it going"), Hari asked meaningful questions.  After I told him I was a pastor starting a new church he said, "And how are you finding that experience?"  My day was made better and more rich through encountering someone from a different culture, perhaps a deeper richer culture, than my own.

I have many friends who come from different cultures and races than my own.  But here's the thing.  What I have found is that it is sort of the main topic that you don't talk about - ever.  With someone from a different culture than my own, you just don't say, "What is your perception of race in America?"  You are very, very careful not to make generalizations, or observations of any kind.  You almost pretend that race doesn't exist.  Because if you do, you run the risk of perhaps making a big faux pas, or just saying something totally unhelpful.  As I have done many times.

Here's an example of one of the times that I "messed up" with a friend from another culture.  In Colorado Springs, I had a friend who was African American named Dean.  Dean was a former Navy Seal, had worked in the Special Forces, had flown multiple Secret Ops for the United States in very dangerous parts of the world, and was very tough.  I used to work out with Dean at the gym.  He was about 250 pounds and was very strong.  I actually had the need for a body guard on a couple of occasions in Colorado Springs, and I asked my friend Dean to help me.  He was happy to oblige.  When I told Dean that I would be moving to Camarillo, he said, "Wow, that's exciting, I would love to come with you, can I come and work on your staff?"  And that's when I made my inter-cultural mistake.  I said, "Yes, I am sure we could USE someone like you."  Now I meant this in the best possible way, but I had messed up.  My phrase was objectifying and unhelpful.  It meant well, but it came off so very wrong.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Monday morning, it is good for us to revisit the dream that Rev King (and we should remember that he was an ordained pastor) cast for America.  The Dream was that someday, someway in America that race and culture would no longer be an issue.  It would no longer be the thing that people talked about.  It would no longer be the subject on the forefront of people's minds.  Race and culture would no longer be the dividing line between people of different shades of skin.

The Dream Revisited

was that:

"I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream - one day this nation will rise up and live up to it's creed, "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I have a dream today!

As this

Dream is Revisited

Here in America, on Jan. 19, 2015 (52 years after the delivery of the famous speech), protestors are forming in most cities in America to demonstrate against some of the many challenges we face as a country on the subject of race and culture.  There are still many wrongs to right.  There are still many ills and tragedies to reverse.  We must all grow more.  I must grow more.

But the dream still lives on!

All For Now,

Monday, January 12, 2015

God Builds Teams

One of the first people I met in Camarillo, when Star and I and the girls arrived in June, is Don Harper.  It should be said that upon meeting him, anyone would say that he is one of the kindest, most down to earth, "normal" people you will ever encounter.  He's just a genuinely good guy.  Don had an office across the way from ours in the historic Lewis building on East Ventura Boulevard.  I would occasionally run into Don in the hallway, and when we passed, we would exchange pleasantries; "Good morning, how's it going, have a good day."

About a month into our time in Camarillo, I visited Don's production studio, which is in the same building.  It is complete with sound baffled walls, the latest recording equipment, the best microphones on the face of the earth, and has the penumbra of some of the famous recording studios like - "Abbey Road" in London.  To my surprise, Don offered to record the first video production that Mission Street ever produced.  That recording is on our website, and is the interview and the message called, "The Most Important Thing."  It's superbly choreographed and recorded.

One day, another mutual friend, who knows both Don and I said, "You know who Don Harper is, right?"  I said, "Yes, he's a great guy that we recorded our first message with."  "Yes," they said.  "He also happens to be one of the most prolific composers, songwriters, conductors and arrangers in Hollywood.  Some of his film scores include, The Guardian, National Treasure, Training Day, Armageddon, The Rock, Twister, Broken Arrow, Assassins, Speed, The Lion King 1&2, Tarzan and Jane and Houdini."  "Wow," I said, "that's amazing."

A month ago, Don and I were talking, and he said, "You know, I have a large studio office upstairs in our building.  It's more space than I need.  Would Mission Street Church like to rent some of that space with me?  It would be fun to work in the same space together."  And so, this month, we will have our first official office space for Mission Street Church in partnership with, and in the same space, as Don Harper Productions.  To say that I am humbled to be breathing the same rarified oxygen as Don Harper is an understatement.  We are over the moon to be in partnership in the same office space with one another.

And then, one of the oldest and surest dictums of my ministry came to my mind.  I have found it to be true again and again in my 15 years of ministry:

God Builds Teams

Wherever you find God on the move in very significant ways, you always find teams.  The history of the great evangelical movements in the Bible is a history of teams.  It's a history of God putting together people who wouldn't ordinarily work together to do something larger than they were capable of doing on their own.  The Bible is rife with examples.

The first two sets of disciples in the Bible were Peter and Andrew (who were brothers) and James and John (who were brothers).  All four were likely members of rival fishing families.  Fishing, in the first century, around the sea of Galilee was a very competitive business.  There were only so many fish to be caught, and only so much time in the day to catch them.  But God (Jesus), brought the two families together in a way that they couldn't have been brought together on their own.  All four were brought together for a higher good, a larger purpose, a more important end.

When the Gospel was first carried into the larger Mediterranean world, God put together two people that would never normally have worked with one another:  Paul and Barnabas.  Paul/Saul, of course, was raised in the Jewish Sadducee establishment of Judah.  He later became one of the leaders in the effort to stamp out Christianity, in the first century in Jerusalem.  Barnabas, originally named "Joseph", was from the island of Cyprus - basically a Greek country.  Barnabas came from a wealthy land owning family.  Cypriots are a strong, deeply proud people, who's heritage and culture is as unique as the isolated island in which they inhabit.  The two, Paul and Barnabas, were as far apart from one another culturally as can possibly be imagined.  God brought Paul and Barnabas together to spread the gospel to the world.

And the list goes on and on.  Wherever you find partnerships being formed, in completely unlikely ways, for the potential greater good of the kingdom of God, you find God at work.  I have learned that these types of bonds are God's favorite work, and a unique power of the Holy Spirit.  In most cases, these bonds could not normally occur on their own.  Only God can form them.

What will Don Harper Productions and Mission Street Church do together?  God only knows.  I hope it's something great.  And I am so grateful for God's central quality of matchmaking:

God Builds Teams

What sort of team is God building in your life?

All For Now,

Monday, January 5, 2015

Miracles Still Happen

Americans like to use the word "Miracle" with frequency and ubiquity.  This past weekend, when the National College Football playoffs were taking place, fans of both the University of Oregon, and the University of Ohio said it was a - "Miracle" - that their teams won.  When family members made their gate connection on time at the airport, to visit it us over the holidays they said, "It was a miracle that we made our plane on time."  A few weeks ago when my alarm did not go off on a Sunday morning to wake me up for church (at 4:00AM), but I woke up on my own, I said, "It was a miracle that I woke up on time." But these are not real miracles.  They are nice occurrences, but not miracles.  The word miracle is overused.

Many members of the churches I have served over the years have asked me whether miracles still take place?  Are miracles just things that happened back then, or do they still happen?  Are the big extraterrestrial events of the Bible (the parting of the Red Sea, walking on water, turning walking sticks into snakes, getting water out of a rock, raining down locusts on enemies…) simply a result of explicable natural occurrences, or did God really cause them to happen?  Did God break into our world and galaxy and upset the natural scientific course of events for good ends?  Or was it just the natural turn of things?  Most people have suspicions about whether miracles really occur, even though we all deeply want to believe in them.

The official Webster's definition of a miracle is this:  "A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by nature or by scientific laws and is therefore considered to be a work of divine agency."

This past weekend, the world experienced a true miracle.  We have all arisen this morning to watch the news coverage of this miracle.

In the dead of night, a small plane, carrying a family of four was flying from Key West to their home in Illinois.  For some inexplicable reason, the plane, a Piper PA 34, crashed in a very rural part of Kentucky.  It was very cold, very dark, and very rough in the woods where the plane tumbled and turned on the ground.  January ice and rain were thick on the leafy tundra.  After trying to rouse her father and mother and cousin, but finding that they were no longer alive, a 7 year old girl named Sailor Gutzler, crawled out of the tail section of the plane and walked, barefoot through the night.  Blood was streaming down her little, trembling body.  It was pitch black in every direction.  For almost a mile, in freezing wet Kentucky frost, and over logs and twigs, moss and liken that was strewn in her path, she ambled in the direction she thought she would find help.  Finally after almost a mile, her little hand cut and bruised from the crash, she reached up and knocked on the door of a house.  The knock could barely be heard.  If it were not for the two dogs inside, who alerted the elderly owner, the knock would not have been heard.  Larry Wilkins, the elderly man opened the door.  There standing almost naked, was Sailor.  With one sock on one foot, and the other one bare, Sailor said, "My mom and dad are dead," she said.  "I have just been in a plane crash."

Now, if we can just take a moment to wipe the tears from our eyes about this incredible story of survival, we must also recognize that it was nothing short of a - Miracle - that Sailor survived and persevered through this terrible tragedy.  Let us count up a few of the events of "divine agency" that made this survival possible:

*  Sailor is sitting in the safest part of the plane, the tail, and therefore survives a fatal plane crash.
*  Sailor is able to function after finding out that the people she most loves are all dead.
*  Sailor, injured, with a broken wrist, crawls out of the plane to safety.
*  The plane doesn't burst into flames.
*  Sailor walks almost a mile in the direction of the only house in the entire area.
*  Sailor is able to walk
*  Sailor has the courage to knock on the door of a total stranger.
*  There are dogs in the room that hear her knock.
*  The total stranger is a nice man.
*  The total stranger has a phone - in rural Kentucky that is not always the case.
*  The little girl, in total shock, is comforted by the dogs, which are exactly the same breed as the one she has at home.

By my count, this is a list of 11 events which in and of themselves don't often occur on their own.  And the list goes on.  There are simply too many details to this story to not believe that a miracle has taken place.

Again, the official definition of a miracle is:  "A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by nature or by scientific laws and is therefore considered to be a work of divine agency."

Miracles Still Happen

Even as this miracle has taken place, the scientific and news-reporting world, at a loss to explain such a chain of events, without the intervention of a divine being (God), are trying to explain it away.  As I write this blogpost, two psychologists on CNN are demonstrating a high level of verbal calisthenics in suggesting that the, "human survival instinct is simply stronger in some humans than in others.  This was simply a deep survival instinct."  Hogwash (as they say in Kentucky)!

Miracles Still Happen

I have a daughter who is almost 7 years old, and who is a very tough little girl.  When she falls down and cuts her knee, she will bounce up right away and after a few tears say, "Daddy, I'm ok."  She's tough, really tough.  But could she survive such a turn of events as poor little Sailor did this past weekend?  The answer is and indefatigable- yes!  But only with God's help.  And God does help.  God does intervene in the most sporadic and unimaginable ways, in the difficult and tragic events of this world.

If you are facing a difficult tragedy or crisis in your life right now, be assured of this:

Miracles Still Happen

For little Sailor, the miracles will, of course, have to continue to happen.  As she processes her new life without the family she loves, God's miracles will need to continue to pour in.  Let's pray for her!  And know that:

Miracles Still Happen

All For Now,