Saturday, March 25, 2006

"V" for Vendetta

Last week my son and I went to the preview of "V" for Vendetta. The theater was filled with college-aged students. I did not know what I was getting into, and when Luke asked if I wanted background, I said "No, I'll just watch it on my own." For the next 2 hours (or however long it was), I was alternately moved, bored, perplexed and transfixed. Something was being said in a language I did not know. It certainly was not another "Matrix", but it was haunting. I couldn't get it out of my mind.
The lead character is in a mask for the entire movie. I expected that it might be removed (ala Star Wars) but it wasn't. The female lead moved from innocent to hard, feminine to genderless. There was a lot of gender-bending in the movie and music mixing across genres. So, I tried to consider it something I saw, that I could talk with young people about, but little more than that.
Then, on a night flight from LA to Chicago, I sat next to a guy reading one of those graphic novels (not graphic like pornographic, but fantasy characters with lots of dialogue baloons around them, monochromatic line drawings, cartoon-like, but for adults). I screwed up my nerve and asked him what he was reading. That question turned into a four hour conversation right into OHare airport. My seatmat was a graphic novelist, who was returning from a convention in LA for other graphic novelists. When I demonstrated interest and ignorance, he led me into a fascinating discussion about the independent genre of graphic novels, morphing between literature and film. He told me that "V" for Vendetta was based on a well-known graphic novel. Many of them adapt classic themes and recast them in fantasy settings. He is a Palestinian Muslim from Chicago who hungers for God. We left the plane as new-found friends and I will update you when his novel hits publication.
The third conversation happened on Friday with a young pastor who is working outside the structured church with dischurched people in our community. When we were visiting together, we got into the area of institutional faith, both the pros and the cons. Together we talked about what is core to the church and what are historical, cultural, class and ethnicity accumulations. Then he asked me if I knew about "V" for Vendetta. When I told him I just saw it, his eyes lit up and he said; that's how many young people see the church....it needs blowing up. Yikes! Of course he was not advocating terrorism or violence, but explaning to me the reflexive response young people (and others) have towards any institution of faith, and structure, any hierarchy and overarching authority: make music with it by blowing it up. They automatically distrust the institutional church.
That's a huge impass. I sensed it a bit while living in Minneapolis when someone said: "How do we know Pastor Don is lying? His lips are moving!" Ouch! There was a conditioned suspicion and distrust, not so much of me as a person (I hope) but of the role of the ordained pastor.There was nothing I could do to dissuuade them. I must have sold out. I must have lost my freedom to political expediencey. I must be a lackey for the system. Is that what I'm sensing out here in California with a number of good friends who are believers, but resisters to joining any local church? Does "V" for Vendetta give us a clue?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Where are the big questions?

I finished another meeting. It really doesn't matter which meeting it was. It was well run and fully attended. We covered the agenda and the chairperson led us deftly. Reports were given and questions were asked. The committee is important to the overall denomination, like many of the committees of a church.
But when I aksed a question about why we do something the way we've been doing it for a long time....I was met with knowing smiles towards a fool who really should know better than to ask. It's just the way we do things here. It's not the most efficient nor the most responsible, but it keeps things in balance. I got the point pretty fast; leave it alone.
Where are the big questions discussed in the church, in the denomination? It must be in another group than the one I'm involved in. It must involve a smaller group of trusted persons. Some of the questions I'd love to see discussed on the Covenant blogsite are: What is the real role of the Conference in relation to the local church and denomination? Who's in charge? Where are we going? Why do we have an Annual Meeting? Where is worship being taught? How do we care for youth pastors better? What is the future of Covenant missions? What are the questions missionaries are asking? If we practice both infant and bleiever's baptism, why don't we see it in mission fields? Where do we chew on sacramental theology in an emerging world? Does ordination help a pastor or get in the way? What role does the seminary play in the pastor's life and the church's life afer graduation? What are some of the big, exciting ideas that are rolling around out there? Hmmmmm.

Hijacked by Love

I was just having a Coke and waiting for my sandwich order to come. It was my 53rd birthday and I was simply delighted to have a whole free day with Martha and our son Luke, who drove in from Oregon. Luke picked up my camera and began playing with it while we were waiting. But that's nothing new. He has the same camera with a better lense, so I let him shoot away at me as I smirked. The first shot was not an accident, it shows the stealthy advance of friends from the Salem Covenant Church choir who surreptitiously flew out to surprise me. As they began to creep up on me, they began singing. I thought it was nothing, until it grew louder and louder.
When I turned around, there they were, singing and smiling and I....was out of words. I was hijacked by their love for me. That's an awesome place to be, especially when you know you don't deserve it. I'm not that great of a guy nor that wonderful of a pastor. I'm not the most thoughtful and considerate husband nor the wise spiritual model of a father I should be. But love works that way. It just gives itself away in a splendid and wasteful display of grace. And love gushed all over me on my birthday as these old friends hijacked me with their love.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Stewardship Devotional

At the most recent gathering of the Covenant Stewardship Commission, I was asked to lead in devotions one morning. When it was over, several of the members asked if I would write down my thoughts for them, so I thought that I'd share them here on my blog site with them and with you.
2006 has been a year of fantastic change for me. I left a wonderful 13 year ministry at Salem Covenant Church to accept the call to serve Montecito Covenant Church in Santa Barbara, California. Here's what surrounded my life at Salem: traditional worship with organ, choir, robes, and an evangelical liturgical worship environment along with an emerging contemporary worship service with a signficant presence of tension and edge. Salem was a large multi-staff church in an exciting urban community in which I was raised and known. I knew my way around Minneapolis and the Midwest. I knew my people and they knew me.
After 7 months at Montecito, I find myself in completely new surroundings. The worship service is contemporary-blended with a lot of enthusiasm and joy but not a deep heritage of hymnody or choral music (I'm now singing in an exciting little occasional choir). I'm the only full-time pastor in a congregation of 300+ (vs 900+) with a great part-time staff. The church is situated in a lovely estate-small village community in California. The names of streets, cities and foods are entirely new to me (I regularly require pronunciation help). I am a total outsider. I never realized how geographically ignorant I was till I moved here. We left a daughter, son, my parents, my brother and his family and lots of old friends to a place where we knew virtually nobody. The Montecito community is composed of several distinct communities: Westmont students, facutly and staff, long-time residents, a very affluent community, and a very poor Hispanic community. I don't really fit into any one of those communities.
But the biggest change was selling our home. We were some of the privileged pastoral families who have purchased homes. We owned homes for 21 years. Owning our home has been a source of great joy; to go home at night to "our house". Both Martha and I were born into pastoral families where the parsonage was the norm. Only after we left home did our parents buy their own homes. So we were yonger thanthey were in buying homes and we loved it. Martha could paint rooms any way she wanted. We could knock out walls, put up fences, replace windows as we wanted and had the cash. It was a place of retreat and refuge. Our kids customized their rooms. I bought my life insurance to make sure that the mortgage wouuld be paid off and Martha and the family could "have their own home free and clear."
But we sold our home and moved into a lovely parsonage right on the property of the church. It is convenient, quiet, very nice and on the current market would be way out of our price range. On paper it all makes sense. We invested the proceeds from the sale of the home for the future. But I lost the "security" of owning our own home. I lost that sense of a safe fall-back place where we could do whatever we wished. The home belongs to the church. Any changes need to be cleared by the church. It will never be "ours".
I did not realize how much I invested in the meaning and notion of "owning" my own home. Now we are stewards of someone else's home. Please let me be clear. The Montecito Church willingly offered to help us buy a home and are wonderfully helpful in letting us live in and make changes to the parsonage. But the parsonage will always be a parsonage and the parson (pastor) will always be the steward of the parsonage.
But then, I began to reflect about the whole notion of ownership. How much of our other homes did we ever own? Weren't they always partly owned by the banks? Isn't the whole concept of personal and private ownership, for the believer, really a myth? Does not the Christian affirm that God has always owned everything and that we are always stewards, caretakers, renters? Then I began to think about my surroundings. I don't own them either. I'm always in a steward position with relationship to my community, congregation. I never was "entitled" to live in Minnesota or Michigan or anywhere. I serve where God sends me, not where I'm entitled or "belong."
Moving to California also meant I moved into an environment where the church is definitely in the minority and "suspect" status. The midwest has a culture that more readily accepts and endorses the presence of the church (a la Prairie Home Companion). In our current community the church is really not wanted. The congregation lives under a "Conditional Use Permit" that the neighborhood grants us since we are in a residential community. They tolerate us so long as we are not too much of a nuisance. Many California christians also do not assume church membership as normative behavior. Many of my growing circle of friends are strong believers, but not members of any local church (see my postings on Ronin Christians below). There is no institutional loyalty. In fact, the church is suspect by both non-believers and believers. Pastors live in a clearly minority status relative to the community.
When I surveyed all this, I realize I've gone from "owner" to "Occupant-steward", from "insider" to "outsider", from "dominant" to "minority" and from "entitled" to "suuspect/scrutinized." Now that's not all bad. My life is free-er now than ever before. It's less about the programs and titles and more about genuine relationships and transformational communities. In fact, I the people of God have always done better with God when they recognized that they were stewards, not owners.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Katie Burzynski Rocks!

I don't really like birthdays. I don't really like having attention focussed on me. I like surprising others, but I don't like having a lot of fuss made about me. So, last Saturday, on my 53rd birthday, I was cautiously hopeful that it could go by quietly, like a whisper. Our son Luke drove in from Eugene to be with us and that was all the present I needed, having one of our children with us. So, we spent the morning observing a seal rookery (I'll write on that more later) and then went to a favorite out-door sandwich shop along the coast.
While the 3 of us sat in the sun, enjoying a lazy Saturday, I heard singing...that was getting closer. I turned around and there were 9 members of the Salem Covenant Church (mostly from the choir) who flew in to California to surprise me. Believe it or not, I was rendered speechless, repeating in mantra-like fashion "Oh, my goodness!" and grinning. It was so out-of-the blue, so totally unexpected, so wonderful! I hugged everyone many times. I love being in California and developing new friendships at Montecito, but I did not realize how much I missed old friends.
But what made the weekend so incredible was Katie Burzynski: a high school junior and former confirmand who was the sole youth among the adults who came to visit me. Now you have to know Katie, how she takes conversation into the realm of full-contact sport. She jumped in to conversations with joy and enthusiasm and totally blessed me and everyone else. Katie is linking this visit with college visits as well. Katie did not realize I wrote blog sites, so I told her to expect to see herself in mine in the future. Katie...you rock!

Friday, March 10, 2006

"Barnacles clinging to the Cruise Ship of Pop Culture"

Michael Kimmelman, head art critic for the New York Times coined the evocative phrase above to describe much of the work in the latest Whitney Biennial in New York City, the "superbowl of the art world." The thrust of Kimmelman's scorn is the way the art commmunity, desperate for recognition, fame and success, panders after the latest trends, fads and fashions.While it attempts to be avant guard, it is not really bold or new. One exhibitor is a Texas man who is clinically unstable, living at home with his parents, drawing often erotic cartoons with magic markers and who thinks New York is "overseas." This is a cruel way to capitalize on a vulnerable adult, launching him into fame and wealth. But the problem is, his artwork, while weird, is not good art. It's just weird. Kimmelman goes on to autopsy the contemporary art community for its very lack of originality and bold ideas. It simply goes where the money is and what the public wants.
Now why should that intrigue me? I sense a similar theme playing in the institutional/emergent church dialogue. While there is much that is vitally important to hear, many critiques of the failure of the institutional church that need to be confessed and abandoned. There are many authors who hunger for authentic community and transparent leadership, who long to see kingdom involvement by christians and prophetic engagement with power. There is also a snicker. There is that subtext of spoofing and playing. There's money to be made in the writing and speaking world. It's fun to poke sticks in the eyes of bloated church bureacrats laddled with legacy costs, buildings and obligations. I hunger for deeper reformation, renewal and the blowing of the wind of God's Spirit.
But sometimes I wonder if all this does not sound more like a new marketing campaign for Starbucks, Abercrombie or Apple. It's hip, it has it's own language and dress code. It certainly has its own music and architecture. Is it really different or just a barnacle clinging to the same old ship of pop culture? Show us the salt, shine out the light, be the leaven...help us make a real different for the kingdom.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Everyone's an Expert

My wife sees too much. Martha is an artist, and with an artist's eye, little escapes her gaze. I've tried to sneak out of the house with a favorite pair of pants and shirt and she'll say "Are you really going to wear that?" Which means, don't you dare leave the house looking like that. She will see a smudge on the lower left pantleg of my suit, or a small spot on a patterned tie.
The other day she made an observation that bordered between poetic and prophetic when she said "It seems that everyone is an expert in music and hardly anyone can read notes." As we talked, she connected with her world of art where everyone is an "artist" and few study classical skills of drawing, sculpture or printmaking. The recent Whitney Exhbit in New york features a man who does magic marker cartoons, is in an out of psychiatric facilities and is disconnected with the real world.
When I get invovled in conversations about worship (with church-goers) here too, everyone is a confirmed expert with firmly held opinions, especially about music. I have heard too many rants about the idiocy of drums or pipe organs, of robed choirs or projection screens, of fixed liturgy or spontaneous praise. But in it all I hear few references to resources, to authors, to seminars or lectures. I hear few references to historical precedents or ancient sources. It seems that we cobble together an assortment of impressions from our personal path and that, then, becomes our fixed truth.
I heard a phrase that described much talk radio as "affirmation radio." When asked to define that term, the speaker said radio talk shows speak to narrow interest bands that draw sympathizers. Screeners make sure that contrarion opions don't get aired. So the result is like minded friends speak only to like minded friends.
Where is the genuine dialogue? Where is the learning? Where are the contrarion voices the divergent opions?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

An Emergent Idea: weddings for missions

I am waking up. The emergent church is really stretching me in some good ways. i have been reading authors like Reggie McNeal, Dan Kimball, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and all sorts of web sites. I'm also privileged to be living in emergent central in southern California, where I regularly rub shoulders with cutting edge church leaders.
One trend I notice is the trend to be freed-up from building addiction. These emergent churches do long-term (and short-term)leases with schools, offices, warehouses, etc. That way, they tell me, they are keeping mission and ministry central and building maintenance and property fights minimal. Sounds good to me! They have sufficient funds for staffing their churches much larger than the one I pastor, sending leaders on mission trips and supporting tremendous ministry/mission projects all over the world. It makes me envious!
Then I got it! What the emergent churches save in mortgage costs, they redirect into front line ministry. That's good stewardship. But, when their daughters (primarily) and sons want to get married, guess where they go? They often find churches like the one I serve, with a lovely sanctuary and stained glass windows and pews and.... a building. Yet, they ususally want us to cut them a deal for the use of the space, since we are ministry partners. I have watched weddings come and go for 6 months by wonderful Christian couples from other churches with their pastors, without so much as being asked for a prayer. They really do not need any pastoral support, all they need is a building. They will do their own weddings, bring their own musicians, caterers, everything.
All the while our church is trying to pay the mortgage, and staffing costs and missions. So, here's what I thinking. The whole wedding use process should be married to the Missions Committee. Each wedding fee should be tied to that month's mortgage payment. Since weddings today run easily in the 10's of thousands of dollars, what's 2 or 3 of 4 thousand more? When a an outside wedding is booked, the mortgage gets paid by the wedding couple and those mortgage dollars are immediately redirected into missions! I think that would be fabulous. Wedding fees funding missions! That way a building laden church like the ones I have served, could find a way to become more mission's responsible through the market-place of outside weddings!

Ash Wednesday Thoughts

Ash Wednesday always stops me. This morning I took a bundle of palm branches saved from last year's Palm Sunday service and slowly and messily burned them in a bowl lined with aluminum foil. The pungent smoke filled the courtyard and permeated my clothes. Some guys came by for a meeting and looked curiously at me, kneeling over a smoking bowl of palm branches in my suitcoat and tie. Ash Wednesday has become, for me, a solitary pastoral ritual; getting the ashes burned and placed in a recepticle in the sanctuary.
It's a good day to remind me of my relative insignificance in the big picture. I am, actually, ashes in waiting. I am going to die. Ash Wednesday reminds me, bluntly, of my mortality and finitude. All my big ideas and grand plans....ashes. All the energy I spend on shirts and ties, washing the car and writing blogs....ashes. All my thoughts about committees and boards, denominational directions and leadership issues....ashes. All my grandiose hopes and aspirations...ashes.
At first glance, this is pretty depressing and morbid thought process. But hang around ashes long enough, and you can get peacefully joyful. The stuff that stresses me....it too is ashes. Those that threaten me...ashes. The looming deadlines and expectations of others...ashes. The financial pressures and worries (especially around tax time)...ashes. The words from others that bruise my ego....ashes. All the stuff that weighs me down is, in the end, ashes.
Thomas aKempis wrote that our problem as Christians is that we are not dead enough yet to be fully alive to God. The old me still kicks around too much. May Ash Wednesday make me alive, fully!

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