Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Litmus Test

I have always considered myself to be pretty open-minded. I like all people, from all cultures. But recently I have noticed a very small chink in my armor. I am not as magnanimous as I would like to be. I have some serious problems with the "Evangelical Litmus Test."

I think that all Christian denominations come from God. Often these get corrupted and used for evil purposes. But in their original state and with their original purposes in tact, denominations are tools that God uses to reach more people. There are some people who would not follow God if they could not be Catholic, or Baptist, or Methodist, or Pentecostal. God knows about these differences in personality and uses churches to reach out and meet those needs.

But my problem is that I have a test, a shibboleth if you will. I want to know that you believe what I believe, think like I think and behave like I behave. And if you do not, I am not sure that I can trust you. My litmus test results in a suspicious attitude toward anyone who is not just like me. This is a terrible sin, and I am sorry. I do not want to judge people. I do not want to be negative toward those around me. I certainly do not want to make enemies of those who are in my own camp. And yet, I regularly do this very thing.

And I am not alone. There are hundreds (thousands? millions?) of Christians who do this very thing. We think that if someone prays aloud, they are not Christian. Or, if someone does not pray aloud, they are not Christian. We judge and ostracize one another on dozens of issues every day. It is time that we stop.

Beginning today I will try to be more charitable in my thoughts toward others in the Christian community. I will celebrate the differences that come from God and use them to reach the world. I will do all I can to bring as many people as possible into the fold, and if I am not the right person to do it, I will work to find someone who is better at communicating. I will do this from now on. Will you join me?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

You are great, O Lord GOD. For there is none like You, nor is there any God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears. 2 Samuel 7.22

We get bombarded these days with all sorts of advertising and marketing messages. The most significant of these approaches includes information about how a product is "better," "greater," "faster," "new and improved" or "lower fat." It doesn't take me long before I stop listening. After all, isn't everything newer and better than it used to be? One danger is that this approach to marketing will cause us to diminish the importance of other things in our lives. We will take our marriages for granted because it is not new and sexy. We will look for a new thrill at work. We can get bored with our relationship with God himself. How sad this is.

And yet here we learn that there is no one who is quite like God. He is greater than anyone or anything. He is greater than anyone or anything. There is nothing that I have ever heard of, or ever will hear of that will ever compare to the greatness, power and majesty of God. So, when the latest reality program on television promises to be "must see tv," remember that as good as it is, as fulfilling and fun as it seems, God is greater.

PRAYER: Good God, great and mighty Lord of all, reveal yourself to us. Help us to see your majesty above all that we know. Remind us of your greatness and keep us in your care. We pray in the name of your son, Jesus. Amen

Monday, May 26, 2008

Annual Conference Issues

This week United Methodist leaders from all across North Indiana, my home area, will be meeting at Purdue University for their Annual Conference. There are some important issues that are at hand. I am going to write about them here in the hope that by doing so, I will get some clarification on my own opinions and positions on these issues. I do not believe my opinions to be right. That is why I am struggling here.
  1. A proposed merger with the South Indiana Conference. First of all, we are not supposed to call this a merger. We are joining to form a new entity. The idea is that a new conference will be streamlined and more administratively and financially efficient. However, It seems that the ultimate outcome will be less ministry effectiveness. Bureaucracy will move farther from the local church. Administrative costs will rise due to increased travel time and expense as well as fewer personnel to administer the churches. My biggest concern is that by merging we are giving ourselves the illusion of ministry activity. We can feel better about our ministry failures (or apathy) because we are busy doing something else. In our organization we re-organize or re-structure every few years so that we do not have to do what God has called us to do.
  2. Decreased budgets. Two years ago our conference changed the way it collected funds from the local churches. Originally there was a monthly bill, or apportionment, that each church was required to pay. In 2006 we got more biblical and changed our system to a voluntary tithe. The problem is that too many churches are not paying a tenth of what they collect. Our budgets are now in- or very near- crisis. This issue will have to be dealt with. I am in firm agreement that the tithe is the biblical method of collecting funds. However, something has to change because this isn't working.
  3. Sending of the Saints. In 2007 we approved a resolution that called for every local church to reach out to new people and new groups. The sending of the saints called every congregation to start a new faith group within calendar year 2008. It now looks like many churches are not going to accomplish that goal. There may be a movement to change the directive by watering it down. In essence, the new proposal would let a lot of churches and Christians "off the hook."

I am sure that there will be other issues that will be important. These three, however, are the ones that are occupying my thoughts and my prayer time in anticipation of Annual Conference this week.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Five Practices?

I recently read a book that had some interesting information in it. In all fairness, I did not choose to read this book. It was an assignment by my denominational superiors. Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase is a little book that outlines some "best practices" that many successful congregations have in common.

I will not even broach the subject of what makes a successful congregation. That is an argument that is beyond my energy or commitment to win. Suffice it to say that there are several definitions of success in congregations. Sometimes Schnase seems to equate "fruitfulness" with numerical growth. At other times success seems to equal meaningful outreach or peaceful congregations or growing budgets.

The biggest flaw in the book is that the title implies some help in determining and implementing the practices that will make a church fruitful. We never get that. We are given the five practices and some examples of how they work and change churches. But there is never a hint of how to affect the change necessary to carry out the practices.
  • Radical Hospitality. The first practice is not mis-named, but it is definitely out of place. For Schnase hospitality happens when a person comes to visit your church. This is a problem because people do not just show up in church any more. If we are to be truly fruitful, we need to go beyond hospitality to reaching out.
  • Passionate Worship. Schnase focuses on planning, preparation and balance in worship. I could not agree more. The old hymn admonishes us to "give of your best to the master." In worship we should certainly offer God the first fruits, the very best effort that we can muster.
  • Intentional Faith Development. I could not agree with this point more. Well-meaning Christians are more likely to let their their faith slide than to be serious about growing in relationship to Christ. This needs to be addressed by individuals and congregations.
  • Risk-taking Mission and Service. There is nothing, I believe, that causes faith to grow more and more quickly than mission. Doing what God calls you to do is great faith development and it is obedience to God's command.
  • Extravagant Generosity. I felt that Schnase gave a disproportionate amount of attention to the matter of giving. If the church is faithful in all the other practices, generosity is sure to follow. One other weakness here is that generosity is limited to financial stewardship.

Schnase has written a book that does identify some common practices in successful churches, but this is all information that we have heard and read elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What I Believe About the Trinity

If I were to call one specific doctrine of the Christian church the most complicated, most incomprehensible, most confusing and most divisive, it would be the doctrine of the Trinity. There have been a few times in my life when I thought that I understood what the trinity was all about. I felt as though I could not only understand, but also explain the intricacies of the “three in one.” Those occasions have been rare, and short lived.

The gist of the Trinity is this: God exists in three persons whom we call the Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit. Each person within the Trinity is completely God. That means when Jesus lived and walked on the earth, he was not one-third God, he was completely God. Likewise, when I am filled with the Holy Spirit, I have the entirety of God living within me. But the Spirit living in me never diminishes the Holy Spirit (or God the Father, or Jesus) available to everyone else. This mystery is that God is completely engaged as Jesus, and also completely engaged otherwise as well.

I have tried many illustrations to explain this phenomenon. One of the simplest to use is to compare the Trinity to an egg. Initially, this works very well. There are three parts to an egg- the shell, the yolk and the white. However, the illustration breaks down if you look at it too closely. After all, an egg shell, separated from the rest of the egg is only an egg shell. It is no longer an egg. With God this is not the case. When Jesus ministers on earth- essentially separated from the other members of the Godhead- he was still God, completely God.

Another illustration that works a little better is that of the three roles of an individual. For example, I am one person and yet I am a father, a husband and a son. However, this is less than perfect because I am only fulfilling the roles of father, husband and son. God does not fulfill roles or functions. He is completely whole. We refer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the three persons of the Trinity, not the three functions.

When considering the Trinity, we must always remember some other things that are just as incomprehensible.
  • God is omniscient. This means that God knows everything that can be known. He knows our thoughts. He knows our past and our future. God knows every thing, always.
  • God is omnipotent. God can do anything and everything. He is all-powerful. There is nothing beyond the scope of God’s wisdom and ability.
  • God is omnipresent. This is the thought that is most closely related to our concerns on the Trinity. God is completely present in every place at all times.

A few years ago it occurred to me that I would probably never completely “get” the Trinity. I am still pretty sure of that fact. I am resigned to never- at least in this life- fully understand ‘the three in one.’ Thank God that the Bible speaks so clearly about the value of faith. I love that old hymn, Trust and Obey. This is how I now view and relate to the Trinity.
Trust and obey for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Prayer of the Week

But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
And your sins have hidden His face from you,
So that He will not hear. Isaiah 59.2

Too many times in my life I feel as though God is not listening to me. I imagine that he is so busy with prayers concerning disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes that he doesn't have time for my requests. I think that he must be listening to the requests of kings and presidents. I am sure that celebrities, statesmen and famous preachers are more important than me. Maybe God will listen to me later. The only good thing about this attitude is that I generally don't give up in my praying. You should know, however, that those thoughts, as common as they are, are completely false.

This passage from Isaiah gives us the only reason that God does not listen to our prayers. He cannot listen when we have sin in our lives. The perfection of God, the holiness of the Lord does not allow him to come into contact with sin of any kind. He cannot associate with us, or hear our prayers when we are in sin.Very simply, this means that you and I must always be aware of the sin in our lives. I must always be vigilant to find and eliminate temptation and sin. An important part- perhaps the most important part- of every prayer is confession of sin and repentance. Do not let your pride, selfishness and sin keep your prayers from getting where they need to be.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I know I am not alone, but I am a sinner. I have failed too often to do your will. I do things that I should not, and I do not do things that I should. Please forgive me. Cleanse me of my unrighteousness and put me on the right path. Help me to avoid sin and to do your will. Amen.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Never, never, never, never give up

I have always enjoyed the music of Billy Joel. I think the first Billy Joel song I ever heard was Big Shot. It was catchy and it wasn't long before I was singing along. After a while I became more familiar with the Joel catalogue of songs. My favorite quickly became New York State of Mind (its still my favorite). So last week when I got the opportunity to see a touring production of Movin' Out, I loaded up the family and headed to the theater.

Movin' Out is interesting. It is based on the music of Billy Joel with over 20 original Joel songs. There is no orchestra in the pit. There is a band on risers (really a scaffold) above the stage. The combo included bass, guitar, drums, a couple of saxes, keys and of course, a piano. Several of the band members could sing, but the "piano man" was outstanding. He was practically a "Billy Joel impersonator."

The action on stage was choreographed by Twyla Tharp, a native of my hometown. There were several dancers, but five major characters. The basic story line is about two couples and their romantic escapades. The boys all get drafted and sent to Viet Nam where one of them is killed. Upon returning, James and Tony, the remaining boys struggle- Tony with reconnecting with family and friends and James with drugs. There is a very dark section in the middle of this musical.

Finally the boys come to terms with their emotional demons. They reconcile with their girls and they all seem to live happily every after. The music is fun and infectious. The dancing is amazing. It all goes together incredibly well. The night flew by. The show was over before we knew it.

But on reflection there is a very important lesson to learn here. James and Tony live lives that exemplify perseverance. They never give up. Even in the worst pit of depression, addiction and promiscuity they keep going. They never give up.

That reminds me of a famous Bible passage, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." I like to remember that the verse is about getting "through" the valley. We should never give up. Never, never ever. Keep giving. Keep living. Keep movin' out.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Categories and Pigeonholes

Here is a pet-peeve, a big problem and a flaw in my character. In fact, I think that most of us are snobs in one way or another. And although there are some prejudices that get more attention than others- racism, ageism, sexism- all are equally bad. Just because a person is different, does not make you better.

There are several ways that I categorize others that have very little to do with ethnicity, religion, age or gender. I am a snob in some unusual ways. I don't like my feelings, but I have them. I, like everyone, need to be working to eliminate by bigotries. I need to not be a snob.

I believe that confession is the first step to improving your life. So here I go. This is the first day of a new attitude.
  • I am prejudiced against people who have what I consider bad, or no, taste in music. This is a problem because anyone who knows me will tell you that my musical preferences are weird, to say the least. I am not superior to someone else just because I have different selections on my iPod (or on my turntable).
  • I am prejudiced against people who are not in my denomination. Although I am working very hard at this one, I still have problems. By their very nature, denominations divide. When I joined mine, I joined because I thought it had the best practices and doctrines. That automatically puts me at odds with everyone else. I need to realize that they are not "less right" than me, they are just different.
  • I am prejudiced to those who have less education than me. I hate to admit this one more than any of the others. I struggle with this every day. Education, especially secondary and graduate education, breeds a certain amount of elitism. I know that I am no smarter than anyone else, and I need to remember that my education only makes me more fortunate than others, not better than them.
  • I am prejudiced against those who have bad taste in comedy. Again, this is a completely subjective category, like the music. People who rave over belching jokes are too immature for me. They need some growth and experience to learn what is truly funny. But at the same time, what I consider great comedy is pretty obscure. Most people would just think I am weird. I need to get a life on this point.

I could expand this list with several more entries. There are plenty that could be added. But, I have done enough soul-baring for now. Hopefully, my confession will lead me to greater understanding and patience, and will encourage you to look at things and people differently as well.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go into the house of the LORD." Psalm 122.1

Is your life as busy as mine? I am sure that it is. There are some weeks- this is one of them- when it is hard to schedule one evening for our family to have dinner together. I am going one direction, my wife is going another, and our daughter is going a third way. We have to guard our personal, family and faith time, or it will get eaten up by every other commitment, catastrophe and care.

Often it seems that a good place to get some extra time is on Sunday morning. It looks like we can have some extra rest, some sleep, or a chance to catch up with the family. But be very careful about this. It is easy to lose sight of what is really important in life. Do not neglect spending time with the Lord, on Sunday, or any other day of the week. When we neglect Jesus, we are actually only causing ourselves problems.

This verse gives us a key to the appropriate attitude we should have toward worship- and prayer in general, for that matter. We should rejoice when the opportunity arises to spend time with God. The Creator of all, the King of Glory, the Ruler of all creation wants to meet with us in our churches and in our prayer closets. We should cherish the opportunities and take advantage of them always.

PRAYER: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. We are too often selfish and forgetful. We think only of our desires and forget to offer prayers, praise and worship to you. Forgive us. Remind always of the need to spend time- more time- with you. In the name of the One who taught us to pray, Amen.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

All Music is Sacred

Let's begin with a few deeply held beliefs (at least they are deeply held by me).
  1. God made everything, and continues to be the source and instigator of all creation.
  2. The very nature of God is perfection. Everything about him, and everything he does is perfect.
  3. All creation, in its original state, was perfect in every way.
  4. Music was designed by God to encourage and inspire humanity and to provide a vehicle for worshiping him.
  5. First Lucifer, and then humanity, sinned and corrupted the creation of God.

Now since I have said all that, where does it leave the general topic of the sacred nature of music? It is my conviction that all music (you could include all art in this assertion, but that is beyond my scope here) is from God, and best used to suit his purposes. This means, of course, that whether the music is hymns, a symphony, opera, or the latest top 40 hits, it comes from God and should be directed back to God.

Several years ago there was a lot of talk about the satanic influence in music. During the 1970's it seemed like every other song was labeled as bad, demonic or destructive. Hard rock and heavy metal were the most criticized, but disco, pop and r&b were also viewed suspiciously by many in the Christian community. I do not know who it was who first turned his records backward to hear hidden messages, but when I heard it, it sounded weird. And it never seemed very smart for Satan to hide his message. He should just come out and say it.

I will be the first to admit that some of the messages in contemporary, popular music are terrible. Drugs, sex, violence, exploitation and suicide are all encouraged in much of pop, rock, rap and hip hop music. All of those elements should be repudiated. There is no good that comes from any of that. But we must be careful to never condemn the music from which those messages come.

If God invented the music, it cannot be bad. We should look to the people who have corrupted what God has made.

That country song that extols the virtues of drinking, fighting and cheating on your wife should never be endorsed, but that does not mean that we should do away with country music. Country music is sacred. It came from God.

That rap number that encourages young men to have sex with multiple partners should never be endorsed. The hip hop artist who tells of the glories of rape and exploitation should not be supported, but that does not mean that we should do away with rap and hip hop. Rap and hip hop are sacred music forms. They come from God.

In your preferred style of music, listen for the voice of God. He is there, speaking. God created that music, after all.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Barging In

I am not a very out-going person. That confession will come as a surprise to many who know me. They see me, I think, as an easy going, extrovert who has never met a stranger. But that is a carefully orchestrated facade. I am basically a shy, bookish person who would rather read, write and be on the computer than attend a dinner party with people I do not know.

The fact that I am the first one to speak in a group of strangers, is a rather new phenomenon, and an experience that is not at all comfortable or accidental. I purposely go out of my way to meet people, get in situations that allow me to speak, and work to build relationships with new people. I describe this attitude and approach to socializing, Barging In.

I try very hard to use wisdom about when it is appropriate, but when it is, I barge in. I ask questions that make people know I am interested. I create opportunities for others to share their thoughts and perspectives. I make sure to listen when they speak. But the most important element of Barging In is not waiting for others to move or speak first. I barge in. I take the initiative.

In a room full of strangers, I start conversations. In a restaurant, I question the wait staff. In the check-out line I am friendly with customers and clerks. At my daughter's school functions I introduce myself to as many students and parents as I can. I spend time with people. I am interested in people.

Now, why would I do this if it were not in my natural personality? What would possess an introvert to behave like an extrovert? It is very simple: evangelism. I believe that I am responsible for telling people about my faith. I also believe that the best, most effective way to do that is through conversation. Speaking to people and listening to them speak are the keys to friendship, helping them with their problems and leading them to faith.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Matthew 7.7-8

I often read this passage, taken from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and think, "if only it were that easy." It seems that Jesus is saying that all your wishes will come true if you simply ask him. Doesn't that sound great? Doesn't it seem too good to be true? Well, it is. I believe that Jesus offers us the opportunity to pray for anything. I also believe that he hears and answers our prayers. I further believe that God is able to do or grant anything. So that leaves me with the question, "Why doesn't he?"

The biggest problem is that the verbs in our English translation Bibles do not communicate the full meaning of what Jesus says. When Jesus said to those on the mountain side, "Ask, seek, knock," he was really saying, "Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking." It is too easy for us to give up. We say our prayers and wait for an answer. If the answer doesn't come right away we lose faith, or we lose interest. But Jesus says to keep on. You and I are to pray consistently and persistently for the answers that will come from the throne of God.

PRAYER: Good God, We are impatient. We give up when we don't get what we want right away. We lose interest and get distracted. Help me, help us all, to be more faithful in our prayers. Give us the faith to continue with you no matter what. Help us to trust you with our whole lives and all our prayers. Amen.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Prairie Home Companion and the Simple Things in Life

First there was a simple radio program. Then there were books, tapes, cds, music, tshirts and assorted other paraphernalia. If you go to the Mall of America in Minnesota you can find a store called Lake Wobegon USA. It is filled with Prairie Home merchandise. There are even duct tape and Powder Milk Biscuit souvenirs. Now there has even been a movie with lots of famous movie stars in it. All of this celebrates one very simple phenomenon- simplicity.

Now Garrison Keillor, the host, star and writer of Prairie Home Companion is unusual. He is funny, witty and ironic. He is simple in a very complicated way. The humor is sophisticated in a homespun kind of way. He tells stories about small town life, Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, that we small town midwesterners can identify with, but is tells them in urbane ways with language and wit that the city person in all of us can hear.

When Keillor tells us about the struggles of Pastor Enqvist, our Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, we church people are not offended. We have had those experiences. And we trust our host. He speaks with integrity. He has created people, churches, businesses, a town that we can easily believe is real.

A Prairie Home Companion is chock full of Bluegrass music, folk stories and corny jokes. There are talent contests and very few celebrities. Special guests are seldom one time visitors. We get to know those guests because we have heard them sing several times before. We like them. We cheer for them.

The key to Prairie Home Companion? Two things:
  • It is about home. These are people that I know. Well, I don't know these people, but I know some others just like them. I may not be friendly with all those people, but I am comfortable with them. They are familiar to me.
  • It is simple. Our world is over-hyped and over blitzed on every side. It is completely refreshing to hear Keillor sing (almost well) and make us laugh without ever saying a naughty word.

I love A Prairie Home Companion. It is on Saturday nights on National Public Radio.