Monday, November 11, 2019
One of my friends from seminary days (Princeton Seminary), Adam McHugh, wrote a book several years ago called, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. One of Adam's main concepts in the book is that many, many church leaders through the years have been more on the introverted side. Adam pits these personalities against the tendency for a lot of modern Christians (especially of the evangelical flavor), to be super extroverted (talking to people they don't know in a downtown space...etc, etc). But in this week's blogpost, I want to ask an even deeper question:
Was Jesus an Introvert?
First, to answer this question, it would be good to define what exactly is the difference between an introvert and an extrovert in a more classical sense. Broadly speaking, introverts gather more personal energy and strength from pulling inwards, or being by themselves. Conversely, extroverts tend to draw energy and strength from being around other people. So, back to our question:
Was Jesus an Introvert?
One of the most striking things about Jesus' ministry is how often the phrase, "And Jesus slipped into the crowd," occurs. Sometimes it is put in terms of, "But he passed right through the crowd and went on his way," (Luke 4:30). Some scholars think that Jesus had an ability to get out of trouble by finding easy exits from maddening crowds. Surely, Jesus might have died at the hands of an angry mob, many years before his ultimate crucifixion, if he hadn't been good at "slipping away." Another aspect of Jesus' basic physiognomy this points to is how, ordinary Jesus must have looked as a man. Jesus didn't stand out in appearance.
More to the potential of Jesus being on the introverted side, Jesus spends A LOT of time by himself, in prayer throughout his ministry. After Jesus spends a day and a night preaching in Capurnaum, and healing thousands of people, Jesus wakes up early the next morning, and spends several hours in prayer. Of course, a purist would say that Jesus wasn't truly alone, since he was spending time in prayer with God. But Jesus was definitely gaining some kind of strength in this occasion, and many others, from isolation. In the garden, Jesus separates from the other disciples and prays by himself, while the rest of them sleep.
One of the signs of an introverted or an extroverted personality, in terms of public speaking, is that extroverts get energy from the crowds they are speaking to, and so, sometimes have a tendency to ramble on and on, long after their prepared remarks are finished. Jesus, of course, never rambles on and on. Sometimes, Jesus' sermons end so abruptly that it is jarring, as in the end of the sermon on the mount, when Jesus simply tells a story about two builders, and then walks off the stage (the hill, the mount).
In the end, it must probably be said that Jesus loved and loves spending time with other people, and yet, Jesus also enjoys spending time alone. And, for all of us, this is a healthy balance to strike when at all possible.
All For Now,
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
The other day, I was talking to someone who told me, "I'm a Christian, but I'm not a practicing Christian." I said, "We are all practicing at being Christian," nobody has it locked or nailed. We are all on the road to being a better Christian.
I love the term, "Christ Followers" for Christians. "Christ Follower," suggests that it is a path that a person is on, literally following Jesus. "Christ Follower" suggests you haven't got it figured out yet, totally, but you are working on it. All of us follow close behind Christ at times, and all of us follow a long way behind Christ at times.
I once had a teacher who told me that one of the worst pieces of advice ever was the age old adage, "practice makes perfect." My teacher told me that this is all wrong. If you continue to practice the wrong way to do something, you just re-inforce the wrong thing that you are doing. So, if you are a dancer, and you practice a dance move all wrong, you are just going to get better and better at doing the dance wrong. Instead, said my teacher, people should think about, "Perfect practice makes perfect." This implies a kind of intentionality about something and a focus on getting a thing right.
I am often astounded at how many people who profess that they are not Christians, are actually better Christians, or know the Christian faith better than those who do. I was talking to someone a few months ago who said, "I don't believe in God at all, I'm an agnostic, but do you know what my favorite Bible verse is?" This person proceeded to tell me about one of the most beautiful Bible texts in the entire Bible, that, to be honest, is quite obscure and not well known - even to most Christians.
I used to have a friend that went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. St. Olaf has one of the most famous choir and choral programs in the country. St. Olaf literally produces the best choirs in the world. What amazed me were the many practice rooms where students in the program would spend hour upon hour upon hour in practice, going over the same line of music again, and again and again. One young violin player had a rash and a scab under her neck where her violin rested for hour upon hour of practice.
If you ever meet someone who does something really well (like say ice skating or singing or speaking or whatever), and that person just looks effortless in what they do, chances are better than not that they have spent hours and hours of time practicing that thing. Practicing that thing perfectly. I will never forget visiting the Olympic Diving Center in Miami once, and running into multi-gold medal winner Greg Louganis. Greg was very nice by the way, totally humble. As he approached the diving platform, and began the mind routine that he always used before making a dive, it looked like the most effortless effort you have ever seen. However, that dive had been practiced literally thousands of times before he made that dive. Thousands of times!!
What does it mean to be a practicing Christian? I think it means that every single day that you wake up, you start the process again, of being a Christian. You say, when your head lifts off the pillow, "Ok Lord, today is a new day, help me to be a better Christian today than I was yesterday. Be with me in my journey. This is a new journey today, different than yesterday's journey. I'm going to need you in a new way, and I'm going to need to rely on you in a different way than I ever have before. Help me to follow you more closely today than I followed you yesterday, In Jesus name, Amen."
Friday, September 6, 2019
This week, at BurlPres, we are starting a new series on the great novel by Victor Hugo, published in 1862, Les Miserables. The series is called, as seen above, "The Gospel of Les Mis". As preparation for this series, which is mostly based on the book of Romans, I read this vaunted and always intimidating book. I LOVED it!!
Frankly I have stayed away from it for years mostly because the name scared me - Miserable! And I found the book to be anything but miserable. It was very easy to read, and also very applicable to all of the concerns, issues, topics and theological insights for today (socio-economic division, immigration, God, sin, etc). Here are some of my favorite quotes from the first part of the book (200 plus pages) will publish another section after this of quotes from the second part of the book. Enjoy these quotes, even if you don't have time to read a 600 page novel!:-)
All For Now,
“Good Quotes and God Quotes”
Les Miserables– Victor Hugol Published, 1862
Assembled by Graham Baird
“For him [Jean Valjean] the external world had scarcely an existence. It would be almost true to say that for Jean Valjean there was no sun, no beautiful summer days, no radiant sky, no fresh April dawn. Some dim window light was all that shone in his soul. The beginning as well as the end of all his thoughts was hatred of human law, that hatred which, if it be not checked in its growth by some providential event, becomes, in a certain time, hatred of society, then hatred of the human race, and then hatred of creation, and reveals itself by a vague and incessant desire to injure some living being, it matters not who…from year to year this soul had withered more and more, slowly but fatally.” (p. 26-27)
“Ah, there you are!” said he, looking toward Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates” (p. 33)
“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.” (p. 34)
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and I give it to God.” (p. 34)
“That was his last effort; his knees suddenly bent under him, as if an invisible power overwhelmed him at a blow, with the weight of his bad conscience, he fell exhausted upon a great stone, his hands clenched in his hair, and his face on his knees, and exclaimed, ‘What a wretch am I.’ His heart swelled and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had wept in fourteen years.” (p. 38)
“This man [Javert] was a compound of two sentiments, very simple and very good in themselves, but he almost made them evil by his exaggeration of them; respect for authority and hatred of rebellion.” (p. 55)
“His conscience was bound up in his [Javert] utility, his religion in his duties, and he was a spy as others were priests.” (p. 55)
Lack of Mercy
“At those words: ‘The Eternal Father in person could do nothing for you,’ she [Fantine] understood that her sentence was fixed. She sank down murmuring. “Mercy!” Javert turned his back.”
The Human Soul
“The mind’s eye can nowhere find anything more dazzling or more dark than in man; it can fix itself upon anything which is more awful, more complex, more mysterious or more infinite. This is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.” (p. 85)
The Human Conscience/God
“Alas! What he wanted to keep outdoors had entered; what he wanted to render blind was looking upon him. His conscience. His conscience, that is to say God.” (p. 87)
“Little by little, however, vague outlines began to take form and fix themselves in his meditation.”
“He perceived distinctly in the gloom an unknown man a stranger, whom fate had mistaken for him, and was pushing into the gulf in his place.” (p. 87)
“A sort of convulsion of the conscience that stirs up all that is dubious in the heart, which is composed of irony, of joy, and of despair, and which might be called a burst of interior laughter.” (p. 88)
“One can no more prevent the mind from returning to an idea than the sea from returning to a shore. In the case of the sailor, this is called the tide; in the case of the guilty, it is called remorse. God upheaves the soul as well as the ocean.” (p. 88)
After a lapse of a few moments, he could do no otherwise, he resumed this somber dialogue, in which it was himself who spoke and himself who listened saying what he wished to keep silent, listening to what he did not wish to hear, yielding to that mysterious power which said to him, “Think!” as it said two thousand years ago to another condemned: “March!”(p. 89)
“Jean Valjean would be admirable and pure in his sight. That men saw his mask, but the bishop saw his face.” (p. 90)
God in our Midst
“What a fool I am!” [Jean Valjean]! There cannot be anybody here.” There was One; but He who was there was not of such as the human eye can see.” (p. 95)
“For men felt therein the presence of that great human thing which is called law, and that great divine thing which is called justice.” (p. 105)
Nature of God
“What I do at this moment, God beholds from on high, and that is sufficient. You can take me, since I am here.” (p. 119)
How People Get Formed
“The galleys make the galley slave.” (p. 120)
Overwhelming Nature of Joy
“No human feeling can ever be so appalling as joy.” (p. 129)
Self-Righteousness/Salvation by Works
“Without suspecting it, Javert, in his fear-inspiring happiness was pitiable, like every ignorant man who wins a triumph. Nothing could be more painful and terrible than this face, which revealed what we may call all the evil of good.” (p.13)
“Death is the entrance into the great light.” (p. 134)
“Fantine was buried in the common grave of the cemetery, which is for everybody and for all, and in which the poor are lost. Happily, God knows where to find the soul. Fantine was laid away in the darkness with bodies which had no name; she suffered the promiscuity of dust. She was thrown into the public pit. Her tomb was like her bed.” (p. 134)
Authoritarian Government Presence
“The presence of a vessel of war in port has about it a certain influence which attracts and engages the multitude. It is because it is something grand, and the multitude like what is imposing” (p. 144)
She [Cossett] thought no more; she saw nothing more. The immensity of night confronted this little creature. On one side, the infinite shadow, on the other, an atom.” (p. 154)
Just and Example of Beautiful Poetry
The planet, in fact, was at that moment very near the horizon and was crossing a dense bed of mist which gave it a horrid redness. The mist, gloomily empurpled, magnified the star. One would have called it a luminous wound.
Nature of Sin
Darkness makes the brain giddy. Man needs light; whoever plunges into the opposite of day feels his heart chilled. When the eye sees blackness, the mind sees trouble. In an eclipse, in night, the sooty darkness, there is anxiety even in the strongest. Nobody walks alone at night in the forest without trembling.
We Can Be Angels
At that moment she felt all at once that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle and was carrying the vessel [of water], and was carrying it easiy. She raised her head. A large dark form, straight and erect, was walking beside her in the gloom.” (p. 157)
“However, she felt in her bosom something that resembled hope and joy, and which rose toward heaven.” (p. 159)
“This gesture and the sight of the stranger’s costume and baggage which the Thenardiess passed in review at a glance made the amiable grimace disappear and the fierce air reappear.” (p. 161)
“It represented all human society; on the one side envy (poverty), on the other disdain (upper class).” (p. 164)
The Impact on Not Teaching Kids about God
“Never, as we have said, had she known (Cossett), what it is to pray, never had she set foot within a church. ‘How can I spare the time?’ said the Thenardiess (parents). (p. 163)
The Nature of Children
“As birds make a nest of anything, children make doll of no matter what.” (p. 166)
“Children at once accept joy and happiness with quick familiarity, being themselves naturally all happiness and joy.” (p. 182)
“Coarse natures have this in common with artless natures, that they have no transitions” (p. 170)
Buying Someone’s Freedom
“The stranger [Jean Valjean] took from his side pocket an old black leather pocketbook, opened it, and drew forth three bank bills which he placed upon the table.” [buying Cossett for freedom] (p. 177)
The little girl (Cosette), with that tranquil confidence which belongs only to extreme strength or extreme weakness, had fallen asleep without knowing with whom she was, and continued to slumber without knowing where she was.” (p. 181)
The Power of Love (or lack of it)
“Jean Valjean had never loved anything. For twenty five years he had been alone in the world. He had never been a father, lover, husband, or friend. At the galleys, he was cross, sullen, abstinent, ignorant, and intractable. The heart of the old convict was full of freshness. His sister and her children had left in his memory only a vague and distant impression, which had finally almost entirely vanished. He had made every exertion to find them again, and, not succeeding, had forgotten them. Human nature is thus constituted. The other tender emotions of his youth, if any such he had, were lost in an abyss.” (p. 183)
“Love came, and he grew strong.” (p. 186)
“The coming of this man (Jean Valjean) and his participation in the destiny of this child (Cosette) had been the advent of God.” (p. 185)
Good and Evil
Jean Valjean had this peculiarity, that he might be said to carry two knapsacks; in one had the thoughts of a saint, in the other the formidable talents of a convict.” (p. 195-196)
“It seemed as if these walls were built of the deaf stones spoken of in the Scriptures. Suddenly, in the midst of this deep calm, as ravishing as the other was horrible. It was a hymn which came form from the darkness, a bewildering mingling of prayer and harmony in the obscure and fearful silence of the night; voices of women, but voices with the pure accents of virgins, and artless accents of children; those voices which are not of earth, and which resemble those that the newborn still hear, and the dying hear already. This song came from the glooming building which overlooked the garden. At the moment when the uproar of the demons receded, one would have said, it was a choir of angels approaching in darkness.” (p. 200)
Friday, August 9, 2019
This isn't the first time I have written an entire blogpost which is inspired by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. In the most recent season of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" (must watch TV if you have Netflix), Seinfeld is talking with another comedian (and it doesn't matter who, because all of the comedians on the show are really just a foil for Jerry to be Jerry), about stand up comedy. They are talking about the art of doing comedy, the ups and the downs, the fame and the misfortune, the money that can come from the job if you are lucky. And at the end, both of them muse with one another, about whether either one of them had won any awards for their comedy sketches. Jerry is asked, "Have you ever been given an Emmy for a show?" Jerry says, "Yes, I think so, I can't remember." And then he is asked, "Have you ever been given the Mark Twain award for comedy?" Jerry says, "No." The comedian asks, "Have you ever hosted the Grammys?" Jerry says, "sort of." And then Seinfeld says - prophetically, "I don't care about awards...
The Life is the Award
I have been thinking about this deep nugget of wisdom lately as it relates to the ministry. A lot of pastors tend to think of the ministry as a long race, that when it is run, will be completed someday, as the proverbial pastor crosses the finish line. And then, there is this unspoken notion, that when the finish line is crossed (whatever that finish line is - retirement, a big project, a fruitful church) there will be some kind of trophy, award, prize, medallion, life time achievement award. But there isn't. As with comedy, in ministry...
The Life is the Award
Patrick Lencioni recently underlined this idea in a talk he gave to the Global Leadership Summit. He said, "There are a lot of people in leadership who really shouldn't be in leadership." The reason is because most people in leadership see it is a mechanism by which they can get something from the experience (adulation, money, fame, etc). Lencioni says, this is a bad model. The motives that people have for leadership are the most important thing. The technical skill of how to lead can be learned and taught and trained. For a leader, the only motive that really matters is serving other people. Patrick says that this is often called, "Servant Leadership," but as he says, "there really is no other kind of leadership." Either you are serving or you are not a leader. And the award for serving is the live of service.
The Life is the Award
Recently, I was down visiting Monte Vista Grove, where my grandmother's funeral was. Monte Vista Grove is a Presbyterian pastors retirement center in Pasadena. It's where the, "old elephants go to die," is the joke at the breakfast table there. As I was staying in one of the apartments, I was lying on a couch, and I was looking up at the ubiquitous palm trees through the window. All of a sudden, I could imagine myself as an 80 year old retired pastor lying on the same couch. And then, this thought came to me, "So this is how it all ends?" And then a second thought came to me, "Cool!" In other words, there won't be any awards at the end, because, the award for being a pastor is being a pastor.
The Life is the Award
Is the life you have chosen the reward? Or are you going for something else?
All For Now,
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
When I was about 12 years old, Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie visited our church in Salt Lake City, Utah for a weekend of "renewal". Having grown up in the intermountain West through out my first years of life, I had never heard of Dr. Ogilvie's ministry. I was not familiar with the aspect of his character that all of us now take as his signature, his deep, rich, milky, sonorous voice. This past week, Dr. Ogilvie passed away at the age of 88 (He would have loved the double polarity of the double number 8 that marked his passing). And with it, the world of ministry experienced...
A Stentorian Voice that Has Gone Silent
Because I was doing public speaking and competed in Oratory (as a side note, Dr. Ogilvie won the National Oratory Championship in 1948, representing is home high school of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I had the honor of winning the same National Oratory Championship in 1990 representing East High in Salt Lake City Utah), I asked Dr. Ogilvie what the secret to good speaking was. He leaned down to me, and looked me in the eye and said, "The secret to good speaking is you must have deep voice like mine!" As a boy soprano, and still a fairly high pitched tenor, I wondered how my voice might become as deep as his. Some have joked about Dr. Ogilvie's voice being, "the voice of God."
But it wasn't his voice, really, which set him apart. For me, it was his deep and abiding love of Jesus Christ, and his desire to bring that love to life each week in whatever pulpit he was filling. Author of 52 books, and countless other publications, Dr. Ogilvie was as ubiquitous on the written page as he was in the oral presentation. Lloyd (and he allowed me to call him that, so I will use his first name throughout the rest of this blog) really, really, really believed in God. He really believed in the power of prayer. He really believed in the power of healing. He really believed in salvation, and that a personal commitment to Christ was what gave anyone the gift of eternal life.
On the written page Lloyd loved alliteration and assonance. Listen to a list of titles of some of his books, "Silent Strength", "Perfect Peace", "Let God Love You", "The Bush is Still Burning", "The Essence of His Presence". Lloyd also loved stark strong images. He painted pictures each Sunday morning while he delivered messages at The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I will never forget the one Sunday that I worshipped at Hollywood First, Lloyd leaning down and with a strong hand, moving from the ground to the ceiling and saying in the deepest voice imaginable, "God lifted his head up!" At Mark Labberton's inauguration as President of Fuller Seminary, Lloyd offered the prayer. I will never forget one phrase which Lloyd delivered which, knowing him, he must have worked hours perfecting and polishing, "God's Prevenient Grace!"
Years later, when I was a seminarian at Princeton, I went over to the Princeton University Chapel to hear Lloyd preach. I thought that that Sunday might be like so many of the other Sundays in that Chapel and have a small handful of people to hear him. The chapel (seating around 1,000) was packed. I will never forget how he stood at the back door and greeted each person individually as they left. With each person who came, he looked deeply in their eyes and he said, "God's peace to you!" It was a private moment, one felt, with God Himself. I wandered to the back of the chapel long after each person had departed, and there, Lloyd invited me into the Sacristy where he was meticulously folding his clerical vestments (which were another hall-mark of his ministry). This blog could just as easily be titled;
A Sartorial Voice Has Gone Silent
In a way, Lloyd was a creature of his time, and yet a being that seemed to come from another time altogether. He was like the great preaching orators of the previous generation - Louis Evans Sr., or dare I say my great grandpa Jesse Baird. And yet he seemed to transcend previous generations as well. On the week after the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy - D Day, we are reminded once again of the passing of an entire generation right before our very eyes (300 plus World War II veterans a day are passing away in the United States). And so, we see the passing of a beautiful, and somehow simpler, but richer generation of pastors pass away, right before our very eyes. Or perhaps it would be better to say, right before our very ears. Because, in Lloyd's case, it was his voice which still resonates.
A Stentorian Voice Has Gone Silent
All For Now,
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
I've been thinking a bit lately about the concept of...
I've not been thinking about "worth", strictly speaking, in the monetary sense, but rather about the subject of "worth" in the more general sense. The questions I've been asking myself are; "What is it that makes a thing have worth?" "What is it that gives another thing value?" "What is it that causes us to consider one thing as having more intrinsic desirability in life, over another?" Of course, the answer to this varies from object to object. A painting worth $1 million dollars to one person isn't worth even $1 to another. One man's rags are, as the saying goes, another man's riches.
The writer, Arthur Schopenhauer, once said, "Mostly it is loss that teaches us about the worth of things."
This past week I lost my grandmother.
She died of "natural causes", which is the name that doctors give to any ailment that a person has after they reach the age of 99, which she did. She lived a happy, and seemingly full life. In the picture above, she is captured on the cover of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1938 as the face of youth, vibrancy and beauty, who swam in the Santa Cruz Aquacade with Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams. She was Miss Merced in a beauty pageant in her hometown. She holds the underwater world record, to this day, for distance swimming. But that was long before I knew her.
To me, she was always just - "grandma". But what I have been realizing, leading up to her death, and now after her death, is that in a very real sense, she gave me worth. Or should I say, she gave me a sense of self-worth.
Combing through her volumes of picture albums which adorned her tiny room in the nursing home in which she lived, I discovered picture after picture of different stages of my life. She captured on now be-yellowed polaroid photographs, almost every mundane and trivial activity of my youth. A picture of me holding a soccer trophy in Boise, Idaho in 1979 (I was terrible at soccer, as the super white uniform, unstained by any grass or dirt or sweat conveys). A picture of me three years later at a soccer match in 1982 (I was even worse then). It was the same year that she took a picture of me playing the bagpipe chanter with my father, at age ten (Even grandma must have known I had no future in the English Premier League of Soccer). A picture of me standing next to my grandpa and my dad, both pastors, in February of 1984 (I'm trying to look serious and "pastoral" in this photograph, an omen of things to come). Grandma recorded and catalogued nearly every event of the first 18 years of my life.
And it wasn't just me that she invested in, although at the time I thought it was. She invested in all of her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren in the same way. There are an equal number of pictures of them sitting in the cockpit of airplanes, going off to college, getting married. She invested in her husband's career and life. She invested in members of her church and social service organizations (Kuwanis, Rotary, Good Sams Club). Grandma was ubiquitous in her attention to detail, as the many, many, many albums on her shelf, three days after she has died, all demonstrate.
But what I realize now, these 29 years later, is that grandma was doing much more than simply taking photographs of my life. She was giving me WORTH. By investing in my every move and award (usually it was, "most improved player" and not "most valuable player"), she was adding intrinsic value to the movements of my life. Worth comes into our lives when others invest in us. Worth can be imbued through an investment of time, attention, focus, affection, notation, and demarkation and cataloging. We make deposits of worth in other people's lives, not one penny at time, but one moment at a time. And these momentary depostits can add up to huge hedge funds of dividends.
They did for me. Today I'm a wealthy (at least in memories) 47 year old man. Hey, I still have the photographs that grandma took of me almost three decades ago. And when I look at them, I remember, that she gave to me the most important thing I own. My...
All For Now,
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Not long ago, I went to one of my favorite restaurants in Burlingame. It is not a famous or a fancy restaurant, but it does serve consistently great food. Surprisingly, though, on this day, the food was not up to the standard that the restaurant usually served up. The meat was a little over done, the vegetables were also overcooked, and the presentation wasn't particularly inspiring. What to do? Should I put this restaurant in the "bad box" - and not ever return to that restaurant again, or should I just chalk it up to a "bad day" - the kind that all of us occasionally have? I decided on the latter. A week later, I went back to the restaurant, and the food was as good as usual.
Similarly, I went to a movie recently from one of my favorite directors. This director had consistently made movies that were always thought provoking, well crafted and well acted. However, on this matinee occasion, the movie that I was hoping would be great, was just ok. What to do? Should I put that director in the "bad box" - and never see another one of his films, or should I chalk it up to "one cinematic failure", in the context of a larger career of great films? Again, I did the latter. And I will look forward to this next director's film.
Where am I going with this blog?
We live in a world where people are more divided today than ever before. Not only are the divisions chasm like, but they are more entrenched than ever. It's not that fun to be in the same room with people of differing opinions these days. If you think about it, however, most of us are divided, over only one issue. There are many to choose from, here is a list of common malefactors in the world of division:
* Presidential Politics
* Gender Issues
* Racial Divides
* Economic Inequalities
The list goes on and on. When we get divided on a particular issue, we have the tendency, unlike the model that I have put forward for a restaurant or a movie director, to put a person in a kind of "bad box". Because they differed on one particular issue, they are bad!
A recent personal revelation that I have come to is that division from another person is as much my responsibility as it is someone else's. If I have had a good relationship with someone for a period of time, and then a division occurs over a difference of opinion, I have decided not to let that ONE issue be the cause of division. If, on the other hand, there is a long pattern of behavior from someone, that is not relationship building or sustaining, then a division is often an appropriate decision. However, there needs to be more than just "one bad meal", "one bad movie", "one bad encounter", that causes a division.
There is an old English phrase that is used in marriage ceremonies still today that can be useful here. It is:
Asunder, is an old English word (ONSUNDRON) that means - "into parts" "into different pieces" "apart from each other in position". In marriage ceremonies it is used in the phrase, "What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder." The idea here is that it is often our own choice what divides us and what doesn't divide us. A person (man) can decide what will cause a rift and what will not.
In my own faith journey, I have decided that I am going to be the one that decides what things are cause for division and what things are not. If it is just one differing opinion, or difference in perspective, I'm going to give that person the benefit of the doubt.
All For Now,
Friday, April 19, 2019
There are some weekends in ministry you just feel intuitively that, many years from now, when you are chewing a long piece of grass, while rocking yourself to sleep on the front porch of your retirement home, that you are sure you will remember. This coming weekend at Burlpres (The First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame), is shaping up to be one of them.
This weekend is Easter, and we will be celebrating 51 baptisms and re-affirmations of baptism in our church!
Five weeks ago, we began a Lenten preaching series on the topic of baptism. Using each of the baptismal questions as a guide for the sermon series (Who is the Lord of your life?, Do you Trust him?, Do you want to be a faithful Disciple?, Do you recognize the power of Sin and evil in the world and promise to do your best to turn against them?, Do you want to Devote yourself to the life and ministry of the congregation?), we preached through these basic tenets of the Christian faith. The series was called, "Coming Clean", a play on the use of water as a baptismal symbol, and the process of a spiritual cleaning of the inner self. We talked about how baptism is a "renaming", a "miracle", a "sealing", and a "mark" of God's promise. We discussed the historical fact that in the first century church, all baptisms took place on Easter.
And yet...we didn't expect this outpouring of response.
In my twenty years of ministry, I have never known a congregation to be more responsive or more excited about the concept of baptism than this one. What began with an oblique goal of having around 20 people baptized or reaffirmed in their baptism, has turned into a larger movement of the Holy Spirit. Most people, myself included, thought 20 baptisms was an ambitious goal, but one worth shooting for. What has resulted has culminated in a veritable...
Tide of Baptisms
Or should I say...
Tithe of Baptisms
I say tithe, because at around 700 members, 51 baptisms (and we could have more before Saturday and Sunday when our services take place) is a little less than 10% of our church. This idea of 10% of the church being baptized has also helped me see another important facet of the baptism experience. Like tithing (giving 10% of our time, talent and treasure to the church), baptism is a way of giving back.
When a person stands before a worshipping community and answers the baptismal questions and has water put on their head in the name of the, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit", it is a way of saying, "Lord, this life does not belong to me. This life belongs to you. I do not own my life. You do! You're in charge. Take back this life you gave to me, clean it, and make it new, and use it for your larger purposes." When 10% of a congregation gives back their hearts, minds, bodies and souls to God, I can only assume that God is pleased with this offering. It's a...
Tithe of Baptisms
What has been so powerful for me are the individual stories of renewal that I have been privileged to be a part of. There is the teen age girl in Sonoma who is on her way to college, and has never been baptized, but wants to do it before she makes this next big step in her life. There is the retired man, who, having completed a successful business career, now wants to do something spiritually significant with the rest of his life. There is the couple who live in San Mateo, who just started coming to the church who have a crazy Bay Area existence, and want to dedicate their two children in baptism. There is the couple who lost their son-in-law to suicide less than a month ago, and wants a reminder that even in a world of brokenness, that God still exists. There is the woman who is now separated from her husband in a potential divorce dynamic, and wants a reminder of the special mark God still has on her life. And the list goes on and on.
Churches, of course, are made up of more than just a collection of individual stories. A church is also more than simply a large handful of people, from a varying array of backgrounds, who are gathered in one place to worship God. Churches are comprised of significant groups of people who do big things for God. It was this concept of a small but powerful gathering (of disciples, of apostles, of servants, of 70 workers) that God had in mind as having the power to stand against the gates of hell, and also the power to lean towards the gates of heaven.
I am so grateful for this call and this church and this ministry at this time in my life. There was a time when I actually wondered if God was really still calling me to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. However, it is weekends like this one that reaffirms my commitment to the ministry. It is weekends like this one that also remind me of the baptismal vows that my parents once dedicated my life to as an infant, 47 years ago. God is still God. And God still has a plan. And that plan is very good!
Oh and one more thing - I am one of the 51 who will be re-affirming their baptismal vows. So, excitingly, I too can say that I may be playing a very small role in a larger contribution to the...
Tithe of Baptisms
All for now,
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
After twenty years of preaching ministry, I am finally beginning to see the healing value in the telling of a well crafted story.
Not too long ago, I was trying to explain to someone the need for churches to stand up for people who are oppressed - particularly by bullies. So, I told this story...
When I was about 12 years old, and in Junior High, I was at the gym one day with my Dad. I was a very scrawny kid when I was younger, so the weights I was lifting on that particular day, were not very heavy. In the same corner of the gym where I was curling 20 pound dumbbells, was a very muscled out, dare I say steroid infused, body builder. When he saw me lifting the small weights, he sort of started to make fun of me, belittling the amount of weight that I was lifting. Though I didn't care too much about the taunts at the time, when my father saw what was going on, he was incensed. Walking up to the 250 pound body builder, the Rev. Dr. Donald Baird (in good shape, but no body builder) said, "That is my son that you are picking on. If you have something to say, then say it to me." The body builder, taking my dad up on his offer, said, "Sure, let's scuffle, old man." At that point, my dad and I high tailed it out of the gym together. Though we didn't "win the fight that day," these many 30 plus years later, I will never forget how my father, risking his own safety, stood up for me, his son.
The moral to the story? Sometimes bigger people need to stand up for oppressed people, even if they won't win the fight. Sometimes churches need to stand up to bullies.
As I have told that story to a few people, I have begun to see a HEALING light go be turned on in their hearts and minds. The telling of the story, and the framing of an idea within a narrative space, gives the subject matter deeper meaning.
A lot of great leaders through history have used the power of stories to win people towards their ideas. Abraham Lincoln was famous for story telling as a political medium. Often Lincoln's stories took the shape of a joke. Sometimes they were more like metaphors. Once, when told that a particular senator was not voting the way he wanted him to, about the end of the Civil War, Lincoln said; [I am paraphrasing], "There's more than one way to get a horse to move. You can try to pull him by the bit, or you can put a horse fly on his back side. The horsefly often gets better results."
Jesus told most of his deepest truths through stories (parables). Jesus was the sort of person, who, if you came to him with a problem, he would tell a story. When asked about what heaven looks like, Jesus told story after story starting with the line, "The kingdom of heaven is like...a mustard seed." When asked about justice, Jesus told a story about a widow, who came to a judge day in and day out. When asked about who we should love, Jesus told a story about a man who was beaten up on a distant and rural road.
So, for example, if Jesus were on the earth today, and you asked him about the immigrant crisis, and whether we should care for children, he would most likely answer in this way, "There once was a farmer who had lots of field hands. Some of the field hands came from the north, some lived locally, and some came from the south. The field hands from the south were the hardest working, but nobody cared for them...." (or something like that - of course, I am not Jesus, so my story telling ability is not up to the messiah's).
If you have a problem you are working through, or you are in the middle of a tough issue, or you are in the middle of a debate in a work place setting, try telling a story. You just might find that stories have the greatest capacity to heal.
All For now,
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
A wise person once told me (and I literally can't remember which wise person, because I have had so many in my life) that:
"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."
What I think my wise friend was saying in this axiomatic phrase is that a lot of damaging things happen in life when people use generalizations, rather than giving specific details about a situation.
We see this a lot in politics today - on both sides of the isle. Here are some gems from just this past week that came through cable news outlets: "Democrats are doing this country a lot of harm." "Republicans are all only interested money." "Immigrants are all criminals." "Billionaires are always selfish." "All news media is fake." "Californians are all crazy." "New Yorkers are all cold hearted." "Southerners are all racist." "White people are all detached from reality." While it, of course, may be the case that some Democrats do harm, some Republicans are financially focussed, some immigrants take part in criminal activity, some billionaires are selfish, some news media fibs on the truth...(you get the picture), it cannot be said that anything happens all of the time.
"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."
This also happens on the interpersonal front. Not long ago a couple came into my office for pastoral counseling. They had been struggling in their marriage. I began by asking the wife what her issues with her husband were. She said, "He never gives me affection." The husband retorted with, "She is always ragging on me." After about half an hour of this, I asked the wife to see if she could remember any time in their marriage when her husband had been affectionate. She paused, "when we were first married, he used to take me on dates." I returned the question to the husband, "She used to tell me how many things I did well." You could see from the looks on their faces that a breakthrough had been made.
"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."
A person stopped me at church recently and told me, after a worship service, "A lot of people are upset about...(the flowers arrangement, to use a hypothetical example)." Concerned, I asked, "Who is upset?" "I can't tell you that's confidential." "How many people are upset about this?" "Lots", "But how many?" "I can't tell you." "What specifically are they upset about?" "They're just upset." I could see I wasn't getting anywhere. The rest of the day I wondered to myself who it was that was upset, how many, what they were upset about? The generality left me feeling enervated. A specific would have helped me to work on the problem.
"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."
It turns out that this saying is actually true from a Biblical standpoint. Think of the first encounter we have with the devil in the Bible in the garden of Eden. The snake comes to Eve and encourages her to eat an apple from the tree of good and evil. Eve thinks its a bad idea. The snake gives Eve a generalized response; "Your eyes will be opened, you will be like God." It's a generalization. Eyes opened to what? Like God how? What qualities of life will Eve get from the apple that she doesn't already have in the perfect garden?
The corollary to this is that every angel we encounter in the Bible gives specific instructions and details. When the angel announces the birth of Jesus, he is extremely specific; "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a [specific] sign to you - you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Specific details - time, place, name, sign. Clarity.
Another pithy way of communicating this same principle is; "clarity reduces conflict," "generalizations are always pathologies." But, of course, I just made a generalization about generalizations, so, I guess...count that one out.
So, today, try to be as specific as you can be today about whatever is happening in your life. What you may find out is that the angels are closer to you than you think!
All For Now,
Monday, January 21, 2019
During Christmas vacation I had a chance to go through some old boxes of papers from my mother's, Scottish, side of the family. Some of those papers had to do with my grandparents who were interned during World War II in Japanese concentration camps in the country of Borneo (more specifically, the Batu Lintang Camp in the present city of Kuching). My grandparents, Donald and Nini, were interned for 3.5 years, along with their two children, Ranald and Sheena. Finally, when the war came to an end, Nini, my grandma, was able to go visit her favorite sister who was living in Scotland. She had waited through the war to see her, and now that the war was over, she could go and visit her. On the way, home my grandma received a tragic letter that, sadly, her sister, Isabel, had just passed away. Isabel was just 42 at the time. It was these papers from Isabel that I read for the first time this Christmas.
My grandma and grandpa's wedding picture, from before the war, is included above. Nini (my grandma's) sister Isabel, is shown in the background, second from the left.
One line that instantly jumped out at me from one of Isabel's last letters to her sister (my grandma) were:
Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be
When I read that line, it brought a tear to my eye. It's such a beautiful and poetic line about life, and the perseverance through it, and that sadly, this was not the case for Isabel, who died too young.
Grow Old With Me....The Best Is Yet To Be
It's a positive affirmation that time marches on, life moves forward, we all grow older, and yet, the best things in life often await us in older age.
Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be
It's an affirmation that the best things in life lay before us and not behind us. Often we feel that the best things in our lives are in the past. People who think this way are often prone to deep periods of regret or remorse or grief. People who believe that the best things are yet to come are often more hopeful, more joyful, more contented. Though things may not be perfect in the present, The Best Is Yet To Be.
The apostle Paul put the same sentiment in a slightly different way; "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you, will carry it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6). What Paul is saying here is that God will make sure that the best things in our lives not only continue to happen in this life, but will happen in the life to come.
It was this assurance, too, that helped my grandma, Nini, cope with the notion that her favorite sister had died.
Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be!
All For Now,