Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lighthouse meets Candlelight

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 21, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Pastor encourages others to ‘experience’ faith 

Said Luke 2:15 is prime example 
By Stephanie Sumell 

The Rev. Graham Baird The Rev. Graham Baird The Rev. Graham Baird of Mission Street Church said that some of the most influential Christians of all time began as skeptics.
C.S. Lewis, for example, considered himself an atheist for many years before becoming a self-proclaimed “dejected and reluctant convert.”
Where's the story?PointsMentioned Map2 Points Mentioned
Augustine, another famous theologian, studied Manichaeism and Neoplatonism before embracing Christianity.
“The Christian faith we have is something we have to experience personally,” Baird said. “It takes some initiative on our part to find and seek that out.”
The lead pastor cited Luke 2:15 to show it is OK—and even important—for people to test their faith.
The passage of the Christmas story shows the shepherds’ skeptical reaction to the news that the son of God had been born.
It says, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”
Baird said the shepherds did not accept the news at face value but instead went to meet the infant the angels described.
“I love that the shepherds are not quite sure about this,” he said. “They are kind of dubious in their hearts about it and decide to go and see for themselves.”
The pastor at the “nondenominational church with a Presbyterian slant” said the verse is relevant year-round.
Those who attend Mission Street are encouraged to ask questions.
The church, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, meets every Sunday at the Edwards movie theater in Camarillo. It will hold its Christmas Eve services at 5 and 7 p.m. at Spanish Hills Country Club.
“The Christian faith is one of those things that, at a lot of churches, you just have to accept and believe,” Baird said. “For some people, a faith that is based in accepting truths is good enough, but I think God can offer more and that ‘more’ is something that is really real.”
For the fourth-generation pastor it took a hiatus from Christianity during college—a decision that caused him to spiral into a deep depression, he said—for him to fully appreciate the need for God in his life.
“There is nothing like a serious liberal arts college to knock stuff out of you,” he said. “What brought me back (to Christianity) was this deep sense that what I was trying wasn’t working. I asked for God’s intervention and, slowly but surely, my life began to improve.”
Baird said there are many ways to experience the Christian religion.
It can be as simple as seeing God in a beautiful sunset or as complex as studying the Bible for accuracy.
“People always say the Bible contradicts itself and, of course, like any multiple narrative, it does because people have different perspectives,” he said. “But, historically speaking, historians have given a lot of veracity to a lot of things the Bible has said.”
For that reason and others, the pastor encourages people to take a cue from the shepherds.
“There are things in life we really have to experience for ourselves,” he said. “The Christian faith is one of those things.” 

(The aforementioned article was published in the Camarillo, Acorn Newspaper on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Why Trump Works...Rhetorically

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

Emotional Correctness

With two mass shootings in just the past two weeks in America, and a presidential election which is getting more and more vituperative and pejorative every day, with the two opposing sides calling each other horrendous things, perhaps it is a good place to begin this Monday morning with a blog post about kindness and listening.

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:

Emotional Correctness

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;

Emotional Correctness

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,