Monday, April 30, 2007

The Great Discconect

Once again someone has gone nuts and killed a lot of innocent people. Viriginia now joins Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Washington and other states as places where unspeakable tragedy has taken place. And although the media does very little to minimize our risks- think about the round the clock attention that these events get for days on end and the disturbing and disturbed celebrity status that is granted to killers- the primary responsibility does not belong there.

In this event, Blacksburg, Virginia, it seems clear that the killer had serious mental health issues. Counseling and institutionalization should have been considered and may have prevented this terrible thing. But the failure of mental health professionals at Virginia Tech is not the primary culprit.

Many have criticized the slow response of campus police and administration in dealing with the shooting in the dormitory. The contention is that quicker action and a campus lock down could have prevented the second shooting in the classroom building. However, university officials cannot be blamed for one individual who would have found a way to do damage no matter what the response.

Others have proposed that guns and gun control are the issue. Some have said that if there were more controls and regulations the shooter would have been denied access to his weapons of choice. Others maintain that if gun laws were looser there would have been other armed people in the classroom building and the killer could have been contained much sooner. But both of these arguments deal with symptoms of a deeper problem.

I believe that killers like this are disconnected. Our culture violates a basic need of humanity. People need to be around people. We are social creatures. We need community. We need conversations and interactions. We need to be needed by other humans and we need other humans. However, our society discourages these relationships.

From infancy we are trained to be independent. We are taught how to take care of ourselves and to solve our own problems. When I can take care of myself, I don't need you. And when I don't need you, I will stay away from you. Eventually, this will lead to distrust of other people. And when I don't trust others to help me, or to know me, I become lonely and disconnected.

We live in the same house on the same street for years without knowing the names of our next door neighbors. We shop in the same stores, are served by the same clerks, and never speak to them on a personal level. I can go to worship with the same congregation for my whole life and never get to know anyone on a personal level. I am disconnected from the rest of the world.

And here is the progression; Independence leads to isolation. Isolation leads to loneliness. Loneliness leads to disconnection. Disconnection leads to catastrophe.

It becomes incumbent on everyone, then, to do something about this disconnection. We should do something for the good of those who are disconnected and for our own safety. Refuse to accept the popular idea that independence is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Refuse to be isolated and to let those around you be isolated. Make connections with as many people as you can. Make meaningful connections that will last beyond today.

And pray for everyone you meet.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Crash into Imus

Yesterday I watched the film Crash again. It was just as powerful this time as it was on first viewing. Crash stars Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Brendon Fraser, Don Cheadle and a host of others. The story of Crash is difficult (read impossible) to summarize. So let it suffice to say that Crash is about racism. There are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Persians and Asians all acting like bigots, and all being discriminated against. It is a very uncomfortable film for an honest person to watch.

  • It is difficult to watch Crash because all to often we hear people saying aloud what we think and keep to ourselves. We see people acting out the bigotry that we secretly harbor in our hearts. We are left scratching our heads. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry. Most of all, we feel like we should do something to atone for our own lapses.
  • It is difficult to watch Crash because we see that our own ethnic group is not the only one that nurtures hatred. We are not special. As much as I hate someone else, they also hate me.
  • It is difficult to watch Crash because it makes us realize that we are all the same. Yes, we look different. We speak different languages. We have different cultures. But we all share the same fears and insecurities.
And that is what it is all about. We are afraid. We are insecure. I worry that someone else is better than me, smarter than me, prettier, or stronger, or richer than me. I am afraid that I will become less important as you become more important.

Don Imus screwed up the other week. He knows it. We all know it. It wasn't his first screw up, and it won't be his last. In fact, we will all screw up and say the wrong things, believe the wrong things or do the wrong things. Imus just did it in front of millions of critics. He expressed the concerns, the fears, that many (all?) humans have. So the question is, how can we avoid that?

I believe that a relationship with God is the opposite of fear. The Bible teaches that fear does not come from God. That means that it must be anti-God. My fears are not holy. Your fears, Don Imus's fears are not from God. That same passage in the Bible says that God gives love, peace and sanity. Loving, sane, peaceful people are the ones who are able to overcome racism and hatred. And that comes from God. In another place, the Bible says that love casts out fear. There is no room for racism and hatred where the love of God is.

So, reject stereotypes (true or not) that lead to prejudice and bigotry. Do not follow leaders who espouse agendas that serve to advance a particular ethnic or cultural cause. And especially, do not follow 'Christian' leaders, denominations or groups that perpetuate fear and separation.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Year's Resolutions 2007.1

I know all the arguments against making New Year’s Resolutions. I know that they do not last. We do not keep them. They only serve to discourage us when we fail. But I cannot help myself. I keep making resolutions. Every year I make a whole list. I think that if I make a lot of resolutions then surely I will be able to keep one or two. This year I am making resolutions in two categories and you get to see them all.

Category I- Ministry Resolutions
  • In 2007 I plan to make youth ministry a priority for our congregations. This will include enhancing, emphasizing and expanding the Coconut Hut and other youth activities. We will also work to recruit and develop new leaders for youth ministry.
  • We will build the Kid’s Club. This will include a much needed effort to find, recruit, train and deploy new leaders.
  • There will be an emphasis on supporting, working with and expanding the Building Blocks Pre-School.
  • We will develop a new leadership training program. This will include Lay Speaking training and other opportunities.

Category II- Personal Resolutions

  • I will read the Bible in 2007.
  • I will read seven books of classic literature. (I don’t know why I picked seven, but it seemed like the right amount.)
  • I am going to pray about and find the project that I will invest the rest of my life in. Right now the leading contenders are AIDS orphans in Africa and human trafficking of children in Southeast Asia and around the world.
  • I am going to write one song each Friday.

Well, there it is. It seems like a lot. Now you know what I am going to do with 2007. What are you going to be up to?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some six year reflections

I am just finishing up my sixth year as pastor of my current churches. That is a long time for me. I am planning on being here at least two more years (if the Lord is willing). Although this is not a terribly significant milestone for most, it has caused me to do some reflection. In these six years we have accomplished a lot. There has been a lot of experimentation. I know that I have changed and grown. I am sure that the same is true for both of my congregations.

I think that one of the things that is distinctive about my work in ministry is that I am all about doing things. I am always on the go, looking for new ideas, innovation. My goal is to build an active, doing, going church. The accomplishments that I point to are almost all related to this sort of doing and going into the world mentality.

Here are some of the accomplishments and some of the experiments that have taken place these years.
  • During my tenure as pastor our churches have participated in 11 missions trips. Over 50 different people have served in mission during these six years. Now a second generation of missions is beginning as one of our members is planning to lead a team to the Gulf Coast this fall.
  • The missions giving, support and commitment has increased in both congregations.
  • The Coconut Hut youth ministry center was launched for teens in the Howe, Indiana area.
  • The MAP, Ministry Apprenticeship Program, was developed to lead young adults into deeper levels of spiritual commitment, discipleship and leadership in the church.
  • We have had, and continue to have several small group Bible studies. Several members of both churches have led groups.
  • There has been an increase in Bible reading, memorization and knowledge as we have all committed ourselves to grow in God's Word.
  • We have hosted several outreach concerts and events for the community and beyond.
  • We began the very popular Christmas Coffeehouse. Each years 150 people attend this musical showcase.
  • The Howe Church has adopted (rescued) the Building Blocks Pre-school. Building Blocks is now a very important part of our ministry.
  • Seven members of our two small churches have received denominational training and are certified as Lay Speakers. This is quite a step in leadership for each of them.
  • There has been increased participation by laity in church services and programs.
  • We have held a periodic Guitar Class as a training tool for potential worship leaders and an outreach to community members.
  • I have just recently convened a group of pastors from the Howe area for fellowship and accountability. We are meeting on a monthly basis.
  • Our churches have increased their commitment and involvement in all areas of church camping. We have had directors, counselors and campers on a regular basis.
  • Upon arriving in Howe, I found that our Vacation Bible School was led by an outside, para-church organization. We have since reclaimed this important ministry.
  • We began a new ministry of outreach, Warm Welcomes, to low income members of our community.
  • We held a Stuffed Sunday, in which we donated several car/truck loads of used clothing to a local community free store and clothing bank.
  • We had a very successful diaper drive to assist with the needs of our local Compassion Pregnancy Center.
  • We have increased our connections to a local youth ministry, The Shed. I currently serve as the Board Chair and three of our teens serve on the youth board.
  • Finally, we have had several people called into the ministry, and sent out into church leadership.

Monday, April 23, 2007

How to think like a Christian about sin and sinning

Life is complicated. There are so many ideas, philosophies and temptations thrown at us all the time. It is no wonder that many Christians fall into sin at various points. We lie. We cheat. We steal. We gossip. We use pornography. We use illegal drugs. We have extra-marital sex. We lust. We envy. (If I have not included your particular sin, please feel free to include it now.) The point is we are bad. We are nasty. We sin!!

So why is it that we Christians are so quick to judge someone else? Why are we so willing to point our fingers at someone else’s sin?

Maybe it makes us feel better. We can point out how someone else has failed so that our sin does not seem so bad. We can emphasize our neighbor’s abortion while justifying our own apathy toward the genocide in Darfur. I cannot feel too awful about my sin while I am castigating someone else for their’s.

Maybe while I am pointing at someone else, no one will notice that I have sin. It is a diversion tactic. If I make a stink about the sexual sins of my homosexual co-worker, perhaps no one will notice my flirtations with my best friend’s wife. If I can make another person’s sexual sin worse than mine, no one will care anyway.

But isn’t that all wrong. There is nothing in the Bible that would make me think that one sin is worse than another. When we say that divorce, or abortion, or homosexuality (interesting that these are all sex-related sins) is worse than our disregard for the homeless, the hurting or the hungry, we do a disservice to the gospel of grace.

I believe that all sins are sins. I refuse to go soft on homosexual practice, abortion or divorce. But at the same time, I refuse to believe that any of these should occupy more of my time or energy than workplace gossip. It is impossible, in biblical or Christian terms, to justify any sin. It does not matter how ‘serious’ or ‘minor.’

Finally, let me say something about sinners. I am one. You are one as well. The Bible teaches that all people are sinners (Romans 3.10, 23). But, God’s Word also teaches that all people are loved by God (John 3.16). You see, there is no sin that is so great that God cannot and will not forgive it.

So what should we do? First of all, let us renew our commitment to God’s holiness in our own lives. Whatever tempts you the most, offer it to God. Do not allow it any place in your life any more. Let us turn from sinning. Secondly, let us continue to speak out and stand up against all sin. If gossip is sin, then we must not tolerate it in our lives. And finally, we must love the people that Jesus loves. It is too easy to demonize those people who are in sin. I must remember that Jesus loves them just as much as he loves me. We must love all people. We must love sinners while hating sin.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Christians don't have to be stupid

I got a little honked off the other day. Someone told me, in the middle of an otherwise normal conversation, that people who believe in God are idiots. I was not a little offended. After all, I have devoted my life to the proposition that not only is God real, but that he can be known. I tried to remain clam, but it was difficult. I spend my work time seeking to know God, to know more about God and to get others to know God as well. Not only that, I spend my free time trying, sometimes in vain, to develop my mind. You see, I believe in God, and I want very much to not be an idiot.

This conversation, troubling as it was, pointed up for me some issues of intolerance in our world, particularly where religion is concerned. To begin with, in our culture, people of faith are assumed to be less astute than non-religious people, especially intellectually. In defense of this position, let me say that all too often it is true. There are many Christians who have chosen faith to absolve themselves of knowing information. You see, it is easier to answer the hard questions with 'we're not supposed to know,' or 'we'll understand it better by and by.' What a cop-out. I have known Christians who have never taken the time to comprehend their faith. They believe what they believe just because they believe it. Someone told them it was true and that was enough.

I reject this premise for the large majority of Christian people. Christian persons excel in all areas of academia. Christians can be found in every profession, even those where education and intellect are a premium. I refuse to allow society at large to consign me to some anti-intellectual ghetto. You do not have to agree with my faith, but do not belittle me or assume that I am inferior in education, intellect or ability.

This becomes more problematic for me when I recognized that in the Christian community the same kind of bigotry exists. Those who hold certain theological positions (liberal, conservative, fundamental, evangelical, etc.) believe that those who are of different persuasions are less astute than themselves. Here we go again. Christians shooting each other in the name of orthodoxy.

So, here it is: I am not stupid. I am educated. I continue my education on a daily basis. You see, I believe that God made me. He made every part of my. He made my body, spirit, soul and mind. If it is a sin to abuse my body, then it must also be a sin to abuse my mind. I will not allow someone else to label me as stupid. And I will not allow myself to fit that label.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The 4 I's

Recently I wrote here about the importance of spending time with teens. Although that entry was specifically designed to encourage ministry with students, it seemed to me that I should say some things about how to spend time with people, any people. Here are the four "I's" that can give you some help in getting to know anyone and preparing to minister to them.

I. Introduce Yourself. This is always the place to start. let people know who you are and where you are from.
“I am Dewey Miller from the Howe Pretty Prairie United Methodist Church. We are out meeting people today so that we can get to know you better and to see if there is some way that we can serve you.”

When you introduce yourself, do the following.

  • Be as friendly as you can be.
  • Smile
  • Do not be threatening or judgmental.

II. Inquire. People love to talk about themselves. So ask questions, lots of questions.
“One of the things that we are trying to do is serve our neighbors. Is there anything that we can do for you? Do you need anything? Could I pray for you? What are your interests? Tell me about your family. Tell me about your job or school.” The list of questions could go on forever.

When you inquire about others, be sure that the following things are true.

  • Your attitude should be to serve others. We want to give to them. We are not concerned about what they can do for us.
  • Ask a lot of questions and listen. What people say to you is more important than what you say to them.
  • Keep accurate records on your inquiry cards. This will help us to know how we can follow-up most effectively.

III. Invite. Have a goal in mind in your conversation.
“We would like to invite you to attend worship with us. We meet every Sunday in Howe at 9am and at Pretty Prairie at 1030am. It would be great to have you. Could we pick you up next Sunday?” Every conversation does not have to be an invitation to church, or to accept Christ, but every conversation should go somewhere. Know where you want it to go, or you won't know when you get there.

  • We are inviting people to church, but that is not the purpose of our visit.
  • Encourage those who attend another church. Do not try to convince them to come to our church.

Leave an invitation card whether someone is home or not.

IV. Intercede. Do not be afraid to pray for anyone and everyone. And do not be afraid to pray for them on the spot.
“Would it be alright if I pray for you right now? I want you to know that I care about you and your needs. I will be praying for you all week.”

  • You may be uncomfortable praying for people in person. Do it anyway, if you can. If not, promise them that you will pray.
  • Pray before you leave the door, whether anyone opens or not.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The First and Last

Finally, I think it is spring. Our weather has been really weird this year. (Don't we all say that every year?) After all, winter did not really get a start until mid-January. And now we have had snow on the ground until mid-April. Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' into the future, and so do the seasons.

But on Saturday, in honor of what I hope will be the last snow of the season, I made an observation. I think it is true. Here is the first part of the observation: In December, when we get the first snow of the winter, it makes us all happy. We are filled with a sense of joy. There is anticipation about the Christmas holidays. There is hope about the new year that is to come. Snow is fresh, clean and new. It is exciting when snow is new. There is the challenge of surviving the cold, traveling in slippery conditions. Snow, ice and winter give us a temporary illusion that we are pioneers. We can feel superior to our friends and loved ones (as well as strangers) who live in the south, the west, or other places where it never snows. "We are tough here. We can take it," we convince ourselves.

And we do a pretty good job. Days are shorter, colder, more miserable. But we keep going. Finally the calendar assures us that it is Spring. The problem is that this year at least, no one informed the weather. It took too long to get warm. So, here is the second part of the observation: When we get the last snow of the winter, no matter when it is, it does not make us happy.

We do as well as we can surviving the winter. But for all our protestation and assertions to the contrary, we really do not like winter. We despise cold. Ice is evil. And snow? Snow is a nuisance at best. This all comes out very clearly when it snows for the last time. No one seems happy about it. We are ready to move on with our lives. No more games. We do not like cold and snow. We do not like them, Sam I Am.

Monday, April 16, 2007


My teenage daughter has become an addict of musical theatre. She has always loved music and especially singing, but musical theatre has become something of an obsession for her. The pinnacle of that love has come in the form of Wicked. Wicked is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West- from the Wizard of Oz- told from the witch's perspective. The musical is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire.
Life begins tragically for Elphaba (that's the witch's name). We learn early in the show that she was conceived as a result of her mother's illicit fling with a traveling salesman. Even worse than that, she is green! As a result of these two terrible occurrences, Elphaba receives no love from her father. In fact, Elphaba's father prefers her younger, wheel-chair bound sister, Nessa Rose.
The ridicule and resentment that Elphaba receives is not limited to her family, however. She is completely different than everyone else. She does not 'fit in'. As a result, she is always picked on and left out in groups.
Without getting too involved in the plot of the story, let me summarize this way. There is eventually a controversy in Oz. The Wizard, in an effort to maintain control and ensure his continued position and popularity, blames Elphaba for all the problems. Elphaba, now forever labeled the Wicked Witch, must either run, or fight the Wizard and his power.
There is not one thing in Wicked that contradicts the 1939 film, 'The Wizard of Oz.' (Both the film and the play take liberties with L. Frank Baum's original novel.) In the movie, the Wicked Witch is most definitely wicked. In the play, however, she is a victim, misunderstood. It turns out that she is the only one with any integrity. Everyone else, society at large, has demonized Elphaba to protect their own interests.
This happens all too often in real life. We point the finger at the faults of someone else so that we look better. We blame a co-worker so that we avoid trouble. We maintain silence, even when we know that someone else is being ostracized for no reason.
It is time that Christians began to live the life that Jesus called us to. We must be honest. We must maintain integrity in all things. We must speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. We must love all people, whether it is popular or not. You and I must make sure that we always do right.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dirty Pretty Things

Stephen Frears has directed several noteworthy movies including "The Queen" and "High Fidelity", but Dirty Pretty Things is my favorite. It is a wonderful movie that includes a great story, a stellar cast and excellent production values.
Here's the story. Okwe is a cab driver who has come to London from Africa. It doesn't take long for us to learn that he has come to England illegally, and that he has a secret past. He works not as a hotel desk clerk. At the hotel Okwe befriended a Muslim girl from Turkey who allows Okwe to rent her couch. Okwe does very little sleeping though. Eventually, we learn that Okwe is a doctor who studied in the USA. Intrigue builds as we learn that something is wrong in the hotel. This movie becomes a murder mystery and a conspiracy thriller.
However, what makes this movie so excellent are the issues that it deals with.
  • Racism- Dirty Pretty Things is about a group of immigrants of various nationalities living in London. Their interactions with one another and with society show us how true it is that people do not treat one another equally. This should be a wake up call for all those who follow the cause of Christ.
  • Grace and forgiveness- Although Senay, the Turkish girl, and Okwe have both broken the law, we see that they need and experience grace, love and forgiveness.
  • Family loyalty- When Okwe is finally given the opportunity to leave his past behind him, with no strings attached, he is compelled to be faithful to his responsibilities, no matter how inconvenient.
  • Class division- Bigotry is not found only in racism or sexism. People get treated unfairly because of their education, language, nationality, income and social situation. Jesus spoke out against all forms of bigotry. There is only one class of people.
  • Illegal Immigration- All people should follow the laws of the land in which they live. However, this film points out several things that remind us that the issues surrounding immigration are not always black and white. All people must be treated with respect and love.

You should see Dirty Pretty Things. And, you should take seriously the issues that it raises.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The key to reaching teens

I was recently asked to summarize what it takes to reach teens in and for the church. I have a lot of ideas about youth ministry, but this query was for a quick summary. I know that all ministry theory and practice can be distilled down into a few simple platitudes, but the question had to do with what is most important. I was being asked for what I believe to be the most significant, the top priority, in student ministry. So, here it is.

To reach students, you must spend time with them.

There are no shortcuts. There are not three easy steps, or four essential practices. The single most important factor for any church, ministry or individual wishing to reach teens is to spend time with them. And, the most important part of time? Listen to what teens have to say, and be interested in them. We must get over thinking of reaching teens as a way to build our adult ministries. Jesus loves young people. We need to love them too.
So why is it so important that we spend time with teens?
  • More and more young people come from single-parent homes. Positive relationships with parents are more rare than ever before.
  • Even when both parents live with the teens, they are often too busy for quality family time. Economic pressures-whether real, imagined or invented- necessitate both parents working many hours.
  • Schools are filled with teachers and coaches who are over-extended and too busy to have meaningful relationships with students. Continuing budget cuts will mean that even fewer students will benefit from these relationships in the future.
  • The most meaningful relationships that teens have, those with their peers, are often driven by text messaging, instant messaging, cell phones and email. Personal contact and personal relationships are unusual.
  • Teens spend their free time with ipod earbuds in their ears, closing out the world. Their influences include video games, the internet and movies on DVD. Personal contact is almost lost in many cases.
  • The world of reality for teens is formed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The unrealistic world of supermodels, rappers, professional athletes and movie stars gives young people a yearning for normalcy.

There are no shortcuts. There is no easy way. To reach out to young people, do it via instant messaging, email, texting, etc., but do not let those 'cool' things replace a caring relationship based on time shared.