Saturday, January 31, 2015

Parenthood finale

Thursday night we watched the finale of Parenthood. For six years we have followed the Braverman family navigate the ups and downs of family life. We have watched the Braverman kids grow up. We have watched cast members come and go. We watched Kristina's struggle with cancer and met a memorable friend she made in the hospital. We watched an amazing young actor by the name of Max Burkholder who played Kristina's and Adam's son, Max. Max, who plays a person diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in the show, gave new depth and insight to the character every week. Craig Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia were the solid rock grandparents of the family with four kids, spouses and grand kids. We watched their marriage mature through family stress and their own empty nest issues until their love for each other was like a fine, aged, wine. The Braverman's took on interracial dating, damaged soldiers coming back from the Iraq war and dating a member of the family, infidelity, financial downturns; well they took on just about anything a family could face in six years. It was they way they took it on though that made the story such an unforgettable one. We felt like we knew the family or at least we would like to. They became real to us and we laughed and cried each week with them and then talked about the family and ours on our walks together. The drama was real but we did not feel manipulated. It was believable because we had  been through similar struggles. Most importantly, the message was positive and uplifting without being superficial. The Braverman's were a family who stood together through thick and thin times. They might disagree or disappoint but they did not discourage or demean. They were there for each other. Especially at the end. If you are not acquainted with their family let me suggest you watch the finale which was grand and then go back to season one and enjoy the past six years.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Church business meetings

Sunday was our quarterly ministry (business) meeting at church. Budgets were prepared and reviewed. New church bylaws were proposed. The mission statement was read and affirmed. We sat around tables having shared a meal together before the meeting. Our small church was smaller than usual. In this way it is like most churches. Quorums are set low and still hard to meet. I've noticed newer, larger churches have done away with business meetings. In some, the pastor and a small board make the business decisions and announce them to the congregation. There are no business meetings. I suspect the leaders of these churches know people would rather crawl through a mile of crushed glass than attend a church business meeting. At ours a toddler ran free and a couple of teens talked and giggled through most of it. The pastor did her best to engage us. We talked later about the frustrations of business meetings.

First of all, they are ministry meetings and ministry can be frustrating.  So no surprise there. I've had prayer meetings and bible studies with smaller turnouts. Second, if some one is interested in the ministry of the church there is no better way to take the pulse of a church than to look at the way it spends the money that it is given. In fact, it is poor stewardship of resources to give and not know how it is spent. I was glad to find out how much was given to our Christmas offering that all went to a Ugandan ministry to refugee women. The director has been to our church.  I was interested in how much money our church used for outreach and for the emergency care of our members. I saw that our pastor did not receive a raise but her annuity was restored. Our church pays $200 a month to rent our  facility. Most of our giving goes to pastoral ministry and missions/outreach. I was pleasantly surprised that our small church is able to do so much. We celebrated communion, held hands and prayed and picked up the room and went home. I was glad to have been at the church ministry meeting. It was good to know how God was at work in specific, practical ways through our group. I had a good meal and got to know one of our members better over dinner. I affirmed our treasurer who does a whole lot of work behind the scenes (the paperwork is the same no matter how small the church is!) and told him it was appreciated! I got to play a bit with the toddler running loose and I enjoyed hearing the laughter of the teens in the middle of business meeting! I came away impressed that business meetings are an instance of church life, as spiritual as any other instance, evidenced by the fact that God shows up!

Friday, January 23, 2015

And in sports news

The big news in Sports is about deflated balls. It even made NBC news last night. Right up there with the fall of Yemen, the fall of NY Senator Silver and the falling price of oil. In case some one has been living on a remote island without a news source this past week, here is what you need to know. Some one took some of the air out of the footballs used in last Sunday's New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts playoff game. If you watched the game it was obvious that some one took the air out of the Colts. The Patriots would have won with a totally deflated football. So, what is the big deal. The NFL has strict regulations governing how the game is played including how much air needs to be in the football. The game balls for this play off game were found to have been tampered with. Some air was let out of them supposedly because it was wet and Tom Brady, New England quarterback likes his balls a bit on the squishy side. I played quarterback in a time long ago and I can say no one cared whether the balls we played with were squishy or firm or dirty or wet and it wouldn't help to complain because there was only one ball to play with anyway. I doubt it makes much difference whether the football is a bit under inflated or not. But, the Patriots have a reputation for playing fast and lose with the rules. Their coach, who is a stickler for details, said in a press conference - well, he said very little - "I know nothing" ( made me think of that guard in the old tv show Hogan's Heroes and he was about that convincing). Tom Brady came on and said, he laughed at first, "just when you think you've heard everything"...  But, then he took it seriously as we should. Every one on the team knows that he likes his footballs a little less than firm so he can get a better grip. Tom Brady does not say stuff like this if he thinks no one is paying attention. Presumably, some one did. Now I am not saying the Patriots cheated. They did not need to. But, it sure is fun watching a Belichick news conference which should be called a non- news conference. And it takes your mind off Yemen, Silver and Oil.

Being retired

I am somewhere in the midst of year two of my new "retirement life".  I could say it's been harder than I expected. But what did I know having never retired before. That's the problem. I had been prepared for the pastoral ministry but who thinks to prepare ministers for retirement. I think someone should. From my limited empirical evidence I think pastors have a hard time retiring. We are "called" to ministry but it is harder to hear that "re-call" out of it. We are one with our position. Our first name is Pastor. We are available 24/7 and we get praised for it. We are at the center of church life. While we may complain that we have no power, what we say and do carries as much or more weight than anyone else. I know about conflicts between pastors and laypeople who are used to calling the shots. Some times they end up in church divisions or the pastor leaving but that is because the pastor is expected to have a big voice in church decisions. That causes stress also, since the pastor is where the buck stops. In worship, the pastor is center stage, too. He preaches so he is the main or only voice heard on Sundays. She gets to say what she thinks and then people get to "have the pastor for dinner," as they say. Then the pastor goes  home and wonders how he did because the only feedback he gets is a friendly "enjoyed the message" at the door or nothing. Until he hears that someone is leaving the church because they are not "getting fed" or not "hearing the gospel" or not, etc, etc, etc. After 30 or 40 years of this life of ministry you get used to it. You like to hear the affirmations - you look for them. You may think you don't like living in a fishbowl but you become comfortable with the attention. You need to be needed. You like helping and when others are so grateful you could almost believe they wouldn't make it without you.

Of course they would and do and that is retirement. Your phone never rings unless it's a robo call letting you know you have a doctor's appointment. All those people who called and needed you - well they have a new pastor who is doing just fine. In fact, the church in which you played such a central role is doing just fine. Which is as it should be but you wonder if I was called there, what am I called to do now? Did God put me on the shelf or out to pasture? Does he need me anymore? Or is my usefulness over? What is God thinking?

Of course, the answer is right there staring me in the face and I knew it all the time. God does not need me and never has needed me. He never asked me to do stuff for him. That's just part of our evangelical lingo. "Give all you've got to God and He will give you much more" (parable of the talents, modern interpretation). "You can change the world" (no you can't). "You can make a difference" (yeah  and that can be good or not so good).

Jesus can change lives and He can make a difference but I (the pastor) am not him. I am his disciple/follower. That's what I have always been. I had been following him working as a Pastor and I am following him now not working as a pastor.

I have been reading a good book by Scott Bessenecker who works for Inter Varsity as a missions specialist. The book is called Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian - Industrial Complex. In a section he calls, God's Unproductive Design, Scott wonders why, if productivity is such a big deal to us, did God wire us to be dormant one third of our lives.  And that's just the sleep part. Then, there is the day of Sabbath rest and in the Old Testament  there was another rule for an entire Sabbath year!  According to Scott, almost one half of our lives are given a free pass - to rest! Don't do anything. Then, when you add up all the hours we need for routine maintenance and working on relationships and being put on hold and waiting in traffic and in lines, we are lucky if we can be productive for God 10 percent of the time we have! If our chief aim in life is to get stuff done for God, we are pretty inefficient producers and He made us that way!

What if God did not make us to get stuff done for him. What if our value as Christ Followers is not what we do for Christ but what He has done for us. What if God made us for the sheer pleasure of it. We possess an infinite worth to God and to all creation even in our stillness, our sleep, our quiet, our dormancy, Scott writes. "Simply living on earth has value. There is value in simply being in God's presence without the burden of searching for a message or praying." When we are dormant and we realize God is pleased with us even in our state of total inactivity, then we are free to serve Christ for Christ's sake and not our own.

 As a good Protestant pastor I often measured my worth to God and sought his pleasure in what I was doing for Him (so I could hear that "well done thy good and faithful servant" some day). In retirement, I am learning to practice "simply being in God's presence." I can still do stuff I enjoy and God enjoys but it's good to know He enjoys having me live in his presence whether I am sitting or sleeping, or walking or praying or reading or eating or washing the dishes or worshipping. It's all good.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Preaching life

I preached a lot of sermons over the past almost four decades. It was a learning process. At first, I was scared to speak in front of a crowd (fortunately most of my crowds were small) so I turned down or made excuses why I could not fill the pulpit. Then, I took a job on a church staff working with youth and Christian education. I was safe I thought. Not for long, I was asked to preach at night (small crowd) and when the senior minister was away. I had a funeral of an elderly, beloved church member (big crowd). Surprising myself, it went well. Maybe I can do this. I went on to become the solo pastor of a couple churches (small crowds). I learned how to preach in fits and starts. This was before the word processing era so I wrote out and re-wrote my sermons. I preached them over and over to my long-suffering wife (small crowd). It would be safe to say that I agonized over these messages. I hope it was mostly because I wanted to get God's word right but I know part of it was my own anxiety about speaking. In time the preaching task became easier. I was more comfortable with the crowd big or small. My wife did not have to listen to the same sermon over and over and word processors were invented so I didn't have to use up so many trees to get the Word out.

Now I am on the other side of my preaching life. I hope not the end of it because I am enjoying it more. The other night I preached at the church we are attending now (small crowd). I remembered those times the guy in my seminary office would call and say, Hey, I've got a church for you that needs a pulpit filled this Sunday. There won't even be a dozen people there. No, thanks, I said, because I could - maybe the next time knowing there wasn't a chance. So here I was years later doing what I did not want to do and having a blast.

It was a small crowd. I have learned a lot. I am not the pastor of this church so there was no pressure. Some people were not there because that's what happens when the real pastor is away. I was not getting any financial compensation for it. It was all good!

Here is what I think I know about preaching now. First, it is overrated. It is still a big deal in most Protestant churches, the biggest deal. And it still is important. But, there are lots of ways to come at the task. There is the ARTS: video, graphic arts, music, drama. These ways of communicating are more effective than having a person standing in front of a bunch people lined up in pews and speaking to them. People who have spent the week watching tv, streaming video,and constantly attending to stimuli on their devices. Preaching is a two way process so what is happening on the other end. Engage the listener with questions, discussions, and media. Most people don't think they want to sit for a half hour and listen to a lecture. While they sit there they are tuning out unless they are engaged.

Even if the preacher preaches a genius sermon, it will fall on deaf ears. So, what is the point. The point, I think, is to help the listeners engage with God's Word to them. Do whatever it takes.

Second, the worship service is the point. In many Protestant worship services it seems like it is all a buildup to the big moment when the sermon is preached. Then, we sing a hymn, and go out for coffee or dinner. God is in our worship and engages us there. There is not just one worship service that needs to be repeated over and over. We simply fill in the blanks each week. There are other ways to worship;we need to think about those forms and use them. Sometimes, we need to have a service where we do just that, serve. Since, the Eucharist preaches the best sermon we will ever see or hear it needs to be celebrated every week.

The Body at worship is the point. In most Protestant churches the preaching pastor is the big deal. He, and it is usually a he, is the focus. People evaluate the worship service by the effect of the sermon. The preacher evaluates his performance by the assumed effect or lack thereof - in the sermon.  An ineffective sermon cast a pall over the next week for me a number of times. Other people can share a word. In fact, it is helpful to hear from the congregation several times a month about where they are seeing God in their lives, their worlds. In the church we are attending our pastor is a woman. How remarkable are the insights she brings to God's Word that I would never think of.

It is God's Word. He is in charge. He speaks as He wills. There is no pressure. Let God do what He will. It is not up to us to perform. The effectiveness of the message or the music cannot be evaluated by us. We cannot know what God is up to and our evaluating is not the point. The point is we gather and Christ is there and we enjoy Him and what He is doing in our lives and He is pleased with our worship.

In the Christian Century this month John Buchanan observed that nine US churches close their doors for good every day. Then, he quotes Frederick Buechner, "maybe the best thing for the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away - the buildings, the money, the bulletins, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which is all there was in the first place."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Equalizing things

Watching Denzel Washington in The Equalizer last night got me thinking about the paradox of following Christ in the real world. McCall, Washington's character in the film, lives in the real world. He works at Home Depot by day and frequents an all night diner when he can't sleep at night which is  every night. He brings his book. He's reading the 100 literary classics everyone should read and he is up in the nineties. He helps out his fellow employees and talks kindly to a prostitute who usually meets her customers outside the diner.  The thing with McCall is that when he bumps up against injustice or someone taking advantage of the vulnerable a rage of righteousness sets in and he has to do what he can to set things right. The bad guys get their just desserts in a myriad of violent outcomes. Like other action movies he has a special set of skills that allows him to overcome insurmountable odds. In this case the Russian mob. Eventually, he cuts off the head of the snake.

Washington who is known as a Christian, plays something of a Christ figure who has a heart for the marginalized in society. He rescues the weak and abused but not in the way Christ did. At one point when the mob has rounded up his friends from Home Depot and threatens to kill one at a time if he doesn't turn himself over to them, the mob's leader asks him if he is ready to die for his friends. He is not. That's not his way.

It's satisfying to watch some super man deal out the vengeance the bad guys are due. And McCall is able to help his friends to better their lives through his violent living. You wish it were that easy. But, but even though McCall has stomped the head of one snake you know there are several more in the grass who will take it's place.

There is a theme in action movies that an individual with super human powers can overcome the everyday evils people have to deal with. It's a theme in life too. We elect leaders who we hope will make a difference and put things right. We rally around charismatic figures who promise to clean out the corruption. But, the cleaner is never up to the task.

The kingdom of God holds out a great promise of change. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Get ready for the New King who has come. These messages ring out from pulpits this time of year.  How does it happen? We only seem to hear of more sex trafficking, poverty, homelessness, corruption  in high places, financial frauds and schemes to make some rich at the expense of others. So, we mostly retreat into our churches and our feel good praise songs and messages that promise that even though the world is going to hell, you and I are saved.

Scott Bessenecker, associate director for missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, has a different response which he explains in a new book, Overturning the Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian Industrial Complex. He posits that we (Christ Followers) have what it takes to subdue racism, materialism, poverty, cancer, aids, pollution, human trafficking and many other maladies that curse God and confound creation. We are, after all, given the assignment to fill, subdue and have dominion over the earth. He takes that to mean, at least, that God intended human beings to be "superintendents of creation, rulers who enforce the kind of rules that benefit the greater good, especially looking out for and protecting the vulnerable" (p 105). Though the incarnation Christ came to restore all things to a holy God. The problem is we don't see it yet. Bessenecker says it is like the Emancipation Proclamation which was an executive order in 1863 but has taken more than 150 years to try to hammer it into reality.

We who follow Christ are more than heralds, Bessenecker says. We are invested by Christ with power and authority -His power and authority - to put to order misaligned things. "Those who call him Lord must share something of the Master...while the poor may be with always, the Master expects us to exercise dominion over the most pernicious forms of poverty... while there will always be oppressors and challenges to the environment, Christ has equipped us to deal a serious blow to corruption and pollution...while it may be impossible to eradicate all sex trafficking it should be possible to make nine year old sex workers a rarity... we can co - labor with Christ to beat the implements of warfare into implements of agriculture... we are called to participate in the dawning and flourishing of Christ's government where it does not's a mission not of individual prosperity but of communal shalom... it's a cosmic mandate to work with the Savior in replenishing all things corrupted by brokenness and sin" (p.110)

And it won't happen on our own. Or in or by any one church. Each one of us has a small piece of the mission of bringing all things under Christ but we need to be for one another and to celebrate all the parts. We need to see that God does not call every church to do everything but each one is part of the body of Christ and we need to work together to live out the kingdom of God in the places where he has us.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christmas Eve in the city

After leading many Christmas Eve services over the years, this year was different. My wife and I and one of our sons and his wife went into the city to celebrate Christmas Eve at the Church without Walls. It's a church of mostly homeless people and they were meeting in a parking lot near the center of downtown. A locally heavy downpour moved the service indoors at the last minute to a conference room at the Episcopal diocese of Northern Florida. 100 people or so, some from nearby churches with walls, gathered for the Episcopal liturgy led by an Episcopal priest, a Lutheran husband and wife clergy couple and a Baptist pastor. Carols were sung to a single guitar accompaniment. Prayer concerns were lifted up by the people gathered around the room. It was a mix of races, ages, gender, sexual orientations, and social classes. Smells, too. One person seated near us reminded my wife of what that night must have smelled like as the shepherds came to worship the newborn King.  The Baptist and Lutheran clergy persons brought the bread and cup around the room after sanitizing their hands. Each of us took a piece of the common loaf and dipped it into the cup of non-alcoholic juice. Then we passed the light of the Christ candle around the room and doused the artificial lights. Silent Night was sung. We held hands and prayed. Like many other Christmas Eve services this one was beautiful. And we sensed the presence of the King.