Monday, October 26, 2015

The Cross Is....Crazy

A week or so ago, I was out in downtown Camarillo, going door to door, store to store, hanging up banners for our church's one year anniversary celebration.  It's hard work doing "cold calls" to stores in this way.  Usually a store employee is busy helping other customers, and doesn't have time to decide whether or not to hang a banner in the window or not.  Encounters usually go something like this - Graham: "Hi, we are letting our friends know about our one year anniversary" (it's best not to include too much God stuff in these exchanges, it's almost certainly too loaded, and the poor employee can't handle a polemic theological discussion while at the same time trying to sell someone a pair of shoes).  Employee: "Oh well, ok, hang it over the kitty litter."  And that's how it goes.

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' 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

Slow Will Go, Fast Is Last

I have been thinking lately about the speed of life today, and how, perhaps, humans weren't meant to move, think, act, develop, and process life as quickly as our modern world would have it.

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

Prayer (Words are Optional)

I am taking a class for my Doctorate in Ministry on the subject of Contemplative Prayer.  You might think that being a pastor I have mastered all aspects of prayer and have a rich "interior life" (as I have learned that prayer aficionados call it).  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Like CS Lewis, I consider myself a total beginner in prayer and a completely inadequate practitioner of it.  However, one idea has helped me get past the starting blocks in my prayer life.  Maybe it will help you too.  It is the idea that:

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

It's 11:30...

This year, Saturday Night Live celebrates it's 40th anniversary.  For forty years, almost as many years as I have been alive (I am 43), SNL has brought live comedy sketches to late Saturday night television screens around the country.  The list of comedy luminaries and creative geniuses to emerge from SNL through the years are too numerous to count: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Julia Lous-Dreyfus, Darrell Hammond, and Will Farrell are just a short list of those who have come from the show.  Literally almost anyone who has every been anyone in comedy in the United States has been on SNL.

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...

It's 11:30

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...

It's 9:30

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,