Monday, January 29, 2007

Do You Know the Heart-Question?

Gordon MacDonald wrote an article a friend quoted to me that, in essence, says good worship addresses the "heart-questions" of that particular worshiping community. A worship leader/pastor gets that; gets the need for a varied approach to worship: visual, auditory, narrative, poetic, facts and pictures, instruments and vocal, high energy and solitude.
That's why in my blog on worshiping witha boom box, it worked in the jail, because those guys "get it" that they cannot have piano or guitar or worship band, but just a CD and boom-box. They requested songs of energy, passion and hope. They were not into deep poetic beauty or silence in the midst of frenzy. Their's were different questions than worshipers were asking at Montecito in the morning.
This sense of a variety of questions should be the template I and the worship leadership use when we evaluate the songs we choose, the sounds we produce, the scriptures we read and the prayers we pray. It's not so much an attempt to placate customers as much as it is the tender way to open a unique window for brothers and sisters of all ages and backgrounds. And the wider the age/culture background, the more challenging it becomes.
A friend I was talking with about this said that he personally loved bell-choirs as much as fingernails grating across a chalkboard, but...and then he paused, a number in his congregation weep when the bells are played, because it speaks to a heart-queestion they are asking. God bless his sensitivity. It's not about what he likes, but about what his congregation needs. Do you know what others' heart questions are that do not belong to your age-cohort?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Heart of Worship

The church of St. Trophime in Arles, France is my favorite sacred space in the world. The cloister attached to it and pictured above is where I have spent countless hours over the years pondering, photographing and writing about the nature of sacred space. It has caused me to read deeply into the meaning of sacred architecture and liturgical history. Liturgical time and lectionary readings have become a heart-beat of sorts to my soul, a gps for my spiritual wandering. Vestments and colors, responses and chants grew on me. I was reappropriating foreign, Catholic things into my protestant, pietist heritage. And then I moved to California.
Gone were the robes and processional anthem. Gone were the pipe organ and choir. Gone was the rich diet of hymnody and ancient responses. Instead I was called to a church with guitar led worship, drums and piano. Musical notes were not read but words were put on screens and melodies were learned. And as strange a foreign as it all was, I discovered I was still worshiping richly and deeply; still loving the ancient and the historic, the musically rich and sophisticated, but also the percussive and contemporary harmonizations. I find myself being stretched in new and exciting ways into new shapes of sacred and worshipful.
But tonight was a new level for me. I was invited to lead a worship service at the county jail. One chaplain led a much larger Spanish-speaking service and I led an English-speaking service with about 6 guys. Because of security concerns, the only thing we can bring in is a boom box. Do you have any idea how much boom-box worship music I have? ZERO! I had to borrow a boom box and a CD from Calvary Chapel. It is really, really not my kind of music.
But the 6 guys gathered in the locked room and sang; badly, loudly and all from deep in the heart. "Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true." They called off numbers and they sang out with all their might. I was moved to tears at the level and raw depth of worship. We talked through the story of the woman at the well and forgiving others 7 X 70 and then I prayed for them.
Whew! Now that was worship!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Gospel for Short People

My wife is short; 5'1" of power and energy. What I have learned as a 6'1" white male is how invisible Martha is, especially in stores. We will go into a department store and she will go up to the counter and wait, as sales persons walk right by her. I will come up and stand with her and 2 or 3 sales persons will immediatelly show up asking if they can help ME? It happens all the time. When we walk together, people bump into Martha, because the DON'T SEE her!! Nobody bumps into me. I'm too visible.
The text I've been living with for this coming Sunday is Mark 9:33-37 where Jesus confronts his disciples with their competitive desire for greatness. That is such a hot-button. Whose great today: in the church, in the emerging church, in the blog world (check your hits!!), in media, in sports, in cultural wisdom (read: Friedman or Seth Godwin)?
Whose great in God's eyes?

We stripped the chancel of the altar table this week. It looks so bare and naked. In the place of the strong wooden altar, we substituted a child's chair, a disabled person's cane, a hay-rake with gloves and an old worn rug. All these represent some of the invisible little ones around us we never see. We don't see them because we are too busy at the front of the line, scrambling to keep up and get ahead (of you).
I hope to be able to both preach and live Jesus' words to run to the end of the line, where the little ones are, the short ones, the invisible ones.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Weeds Among the Wheat: God and.......

Thomas H. Green S.J. has the words for today. He is a Jesuit priest from New York State who is now Professor of Philosophy and Pastoral Theology at the Ateneo de Manila University, that is unless he's retired. I was introduced to his writing about prayer, and spiritual direction 18 years ago. And when I picked up his book on discernment: Weeds among the Wheat, Discernment: where prayer and action meet, it is like fresh water to a parched throat.
Green's work is a commentary on the Spritual exercises of St. Ignatius who wrote over 400 years ago. What Ignatius and Green emphasize is the need to be hungry for God's will in our life, and to give God a blank check. Yikes! That's a scary thought. I like to consider God's will within some conditions and frameworks of acceptability, not a blank check! Yet what both Ignatius and Green stress is that discernment is impossible when we seek "God and..." instead of "God only." Until we are ready for God only, our discernment process must really take the shape of confessional prayer, to rid ourselves of the extra attachments we tag on.
Why is this important now? I have been reading Scot McKinight's blog on the "E" word and its possible demise under cultural overuse and political abuse. Is it Ok to be a Christian without the adjective "Evangelical?" Is that part of God or God and? I met a couple some years ago who were very active in a conservative "E" church. Over coffee and ice-cream one night we taled about God's will and his call. She looked up and me and said so seriously it was almost combative,"God would NOT call us away from St. Paul." (In fact she defined the suburb within St. Paul). She seriously believed that God's will for her had geographic boundaries. Now I experience that even more in southern California, where it is so beautiful here almost all the time, many college graduates will do anything to stay in the region, seeking God's will, but certainly not imagining it could be in Des Moines, Iowa or Kansas City. I like to attach compensation to God's will: I know he wants me where the pay is the best...or does he? It certainly seems that way for many pastors and church leaders; their careers only go upwards, anticipating and entitled to greater places.
The text I'm preaching, that has hammered me all week is Mark 9:33-37, where Jesus calls his disciples to get off the success ladder, run to the end of the line and start serving the little ones.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Annual Meeting Results

Last night the congregation I serve met for the purpose of its Annual Meeting. This is an annual gathering that is both joy and terror. It can be boring or chaotic, spiritual or dispiriting. We gathered first for a "soup-luck". This was a first for me; where everyone brought their unique, favorite soup and the Adult Ministry Team provided salad, bread, beverage and a developmentally disabled group that uses our kitchen made desert. About 50 people had Sunday night soup together, which had its own marvelous value, a simple healthy meal on a Sunday night ending the sabbath.
Then we reconvened in the sanctuary for the "Business Session." Right off the bat things went south when the computer system revolted and Dan Bos' powerpoint slide show of the year in ministry was gobbled up. I saw the show and it was superb, moving and evocative of the breadth and depth of ministry at MCC. So we will need to show it at another time. Then our Treasurer had a snazzy power-point presentation with no hard-copy backup. That too crashed and burned except Scott Yamahata is a closet comedian!! He gave the most delightful Treasurer's Report I've ever heard, telling us what we would be seeing. The upshot of his report was that the church came in ahead of expenses and behind the budget. But then we presented a new budget to the congregation that comes out 17% more than last year. It was unanimously adopted. I was surprised and moved.
How do you "measure" a church? What are the figures that indicate church health, life and growth? What are God's "metrics"? We talked in the Adult SS class that day about whether we have a compelling vision? That made me spend the whole afternoon preparing my report with the answer YES, there is a compelling vision here for worship at the center of our life, transformed and obedient lives emerging out of worship into our community. Health is a direction not a destination, it's resident in the community more than in the face/voice of the leader, it's seen in acts of obedience more than personal satisfaction, it's power is in the home and circles of friendship rather than in the big meeting on Sunday mornings, it's about touching the lives of the "litle ones" more than gathering "big names" around us, it's about being leaven, light, salt.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

African Children's Choir; a night of heroes

All week long the church received phone calls from outside the area: "Are you really having the African Children's Choir at your church? Can we get tickets?" No, we replied, the concert is free. When 7:00 pm arrived yesterday night, the sanctuary was comfortably filled to capacity as was the balcony. 26 eight and nine year olds from Uganda overwhelmed us all with high energy tribal dancing, Ugandan music and familiar Gospel choruses. We alternated between clapping along with their fast rhythms and weeping at the purity of their voices.

The African Children's Choir, to my chagrin, is quite old and has been touring the USA in two separate busses for years. It's goal is to raise funds and awareness for the broken ones in Ugana, Kenya, Rwanda and elsewhere. All of the children in the choir lost one or both parents to war, disease or starvation. Over 500 children audition for the 26 spots on the 14 month tour. They will all return home to finish their education in the Ugandan orphanage/school and go on to become Uganda engineers, teachers, pastors, lawyers and doctors. In their eyes I saw hope and I saw heroes.
We also had a guest with us last night sitting in the front row; he was African-American and very tall. He looked familiar, but I could not place his name and his face. He introduced himself to me on the way out, but his name slipped out of my head among the many conversations with so many other guests. Outside one of our friends said, "Did you see who that was?" I said "Yeah" his name is "Horace something". "Not Horace something, Horace Grant, the great Los Angeles Lakers player and Chicago Bulls player!" I jumped out of my skin. He was such a hero for me during our Michigan days when he played with Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippin. So I searched the church and found him with his wife in a room with the Children's Choir kids, who were clinging to him and climbing all over him. You see, they hosted some of the kids earlier in the week and were so moved by their experience they drove all the way down to Santa Barbara just to hear them and see them again. Another hero for me!!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cluttered Spirituality

This did not "just happen." This garage reflects someone's values. This garage speaks of mechanical attempts, radio-controlled airplanes, the need for heat and light, and probably a very busy life. I'm a clutterer and my wife Martha is an organizer and cleaner. If I sit in one place too long, a heafty trash-bag will slide over my head and Martha will start tugging me out to the patio. She's really a cleaner! But she has also helped me to see the intentionality of space.
During our trips to France over the years, I have begun to notice the arrangement of Romaneque sanctuaries, of what they put where. Where the baptismal font is placed roves all over sanctuaries. Pulpits appear mid-nave, upper-nave, at the crossing, and in a split chancel. Roaming around the apse and into the little chapels speaks volumes about what is of importance in this sanctuary over that sanctuary. Patron saints, reliquaries, sculpture, windows and crypts all tell stories of what is important here.
What happens when we take that degree of scrutiny and intentionality into the evangelical church? What values and stories does our use of space convey? What is central to the eye? How are colors used? Is there thematic integrity or helter-skelter chaos? Is the space trapped in the past or alert to the present? Is it about "the show" up front? or the comfort of the "audience?"
I am impressed with the aesthetic intentionality of Starbucks, Caribou, Smith and Hawken and Restoration Harware. There space moves you in an intended direction. How does church space move the worshiper?
Then, I come back to the nagging question in my heart: are we morally responsible to let our space be used by other churches who are content with less-than-beautiful space for worship, but not for weddings? Does that send a signal that God is dingy and brides are not? Does that say worship can be haphazard but weddings are more important than worship? What?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Kelly Family off to Bridges of Hope

The pickup truck and SUV pulled up about 8:30 on a crisp Santa Barbara morning. Kalon and Karen Kelly began untying the ropes that held all 12 suitcases and trunks in the bed of the truck. The SUV carried Kalon Jr., Ruth, Gracie and Lucas, ready and eager for the start of their 2-day sojourn to Cape Town South Africa and the beginning of a 1 year short-term mission with Dennis Wadley and "Bridges of Hope."

Watching missions launch gets better and better as I get older. I've headed off on my fair share of mission adventures. Going after months of planning is such a relief. It was written all over everyone's faces (except the grandparents, anticipating absence). Getting all the things in place, visa's, tickets, clothing, bills, is enormous. So once the bags were tickets and taken, the Kellys began. But I also know that how you start is nowhere how you end. They will see changes in themselves God only knows. I've headed off with an air of exhuberance bordering arrogance; as if I really knew what I was getting into. But mid-stream, depth things happen and eyes open and God begins speaking in a voice never heard at home in the routines of everyday coping. The Kellys will hear and see God at work in some exciting and new ways.
How cool is it to be a pastor in a church where people like the Kellys hear God urging them into a new area...and they go? God bless them!

Monday, January 15, 2007

An Extraordinarily Normal Sunday

The afterglow of Sunday lingers into the second cup of Monday morning coffee. No, we did not experience record-breaking crowds or streams of people coming forward in repentance. Instead, I was bowled over all day long by small acts of grace. Bob fixed the heating system that broke down on a cold morning. Mike came in early and got the sound system going. Kalon and Ruth, Gracie and Lucas came to both services to be prayed over and blessed before heading off for a year in South Africa. Cliff prayed a congregational prayer that moved me to tears. Diana stepped in at the last minute to pray in the place of a sick member. Chris (95+) invited 2 new college students to dinner, to reach out and befriend them. Liam is off with 8 Jr. high boys all weekend at a mountain camp.
The list could go on and on; from nursery care to ushering. I was aware of the multitude of small tasks done in Jesus' name with grace that made me humbled to be a pastor to such a community.

Misery Chic?

New words catch my attention. So on last night's ABC news there was a piece on the "fashion" trend of celebrities going out into impoverished parts of the world to do good....or to market themselves? It was such a cynical slant to simple efforts to do the right thing. These celebrities have the means to do some good and they do it the best that they can. In response, the media looks at their efforts as a new way of product placement or image contouring. It's as if Angelina Jolie is sexier if she is surrounded by starving children or George Cluny is more charming in an AIDS clinic. What?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Some thoughts on churchmanship (personship)

Senator Barbara Boxer and Secretary of State Rice got into a bit of a dust-up this week about "the ultimate price" neither of them risked paying for decisions on Iraq. Sentaor Boxer said she was excluded because of her grown children being ineligible to serve and Secretary Rice was excluded because she is single and childless. While I do not think single people are incapable of making policy decisions that do not affect them personally, I think it raises the point about a person's context.
I would have a hard time taking marriage advice from a person who eschews marriage. I would have a hard time taking advice on music from someone who is tone-deaf, or about sobriety from an active drunk. Context determines credibility on many things.
The blog I wrote on Arvid Adell caused me to reflect on the wise voices that have influenced my theology. They all came out of a context of obedient, active and servant churchmanship (personship). These were scholars who taught and wrote, spoke around the country at gatherings, but also sat on Deacon Boards, taught Sunday School classes, and wrangled through budgets.
I have been encountering in the past couple of years, acknowledged and even successful voices on the church who have little or no churchmanship. These were strident voices urging change and renewal who did not attend worship. One person was a paid Sunday School teacher, brilliant in many ways, but who, after class, packed up his material and drove home, not attending any church. What's the signal here?
As I have been watching the Sundance Channel's compelling docu-soap on Jay Bakker "One Punk Under God" I am more than ever aware of the need for solid churchmanship (personship) to undergird our thoughts and words. With all the stirring "emergent" voices, we need to wonder where they worship week after week? To which body are they intimately committed? Are they tithers (at least sacrificial givers) to a local church? Do they serve in any place dimmer than the limelight? Would they take a turn in the nursery or convalescent home? Do they teach Jr. high Sunday School and help clean up after pot-lucks?

Arvid Adell's Great Article!

Nothing like a Sunday afternoon with a cup of coffee and magazines and newspapers to read. I have my rituals of reading the NYT's in my own peculiar order, then unread magazines from the week, local free papers, and blog sites of friends. Today Martha (my wife) suggested I try reading something different: the Covenant Companion. I'm a voracious reader and Martha is a discerning reader. So when she recommended the article by Arvid Adell in the January 2007 Covenant Companion, I was intrigued. Adell, philosophy professor at Tabor School of Business gently reminds readers of the power of the local church in creating spiritual reality. He states that the Covenant Church he was raised in 50 years ago planted in him four enduring truths: ontologizing linguists (you have to let him unpack this one!), emphasizing the important distinction between decisions and suggestions, worship as an occasion to experience God, and the practice of surrogate faith (again, a great notion for generations).
I guess his article falls on the heels of my reappreciation for the Gideons and other Christian organizations that are neither hip or in the spotlight.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Gideon's for today

Gideons are not associated with innovative, emergent, exciting ministries. Instead, they are the stereotype of old white guys in suits and white shirts handing out Bibles to students, service persons, hotels and hospitals. I have endured a lot rubber chicken dinners in bland hotel ballrooms where testimonies are offered about the power of distributing Bibles all around the world.
So when I was invited to yet another pastors' appreciation breakfast, I went with little sense of adventure or anticipation. I went in honor of one of our members, a long-time Gideon. But something happened to me this morning as I listened to a husband and wife presentation team from Burbank, California. They gave witness to the incredible, life-transforming power of God's Word in the hands of spiritually hungry persons.
Maybe I listened with more interest because of my experience at the County Jail last Sunday. Before we were shepherded into our class-rooms one of the guards reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a dogeared lilttle white Gideon New Testament. When I asked him if he wanted me to get him a new one, he smiled at me and said, "Nah, this is a good old book!"
Quietly, regularly and sacrificially the Gideons keep handing out Bibles. Bibles they pay for. Bibles they deliver. They are not particularly hip or cool. But they make a difference. I wish they had a more egalitarian view of women in ministry. I wish they used better translations of the Bible. I wish they did not exclude tradespersons, insisting on professional men. But I was convicted that they are a vital part of the body of Christ.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Good Enough for God?

He was nicely dressed, blue suirt, matching tie, blue-tooth ear bud driving an Acura. He waved at me through the window as he came in. After I introduced myself, I knew what was coming next. "I'm getting married and wonder if you allow couples to rent the church?" So instead of a quick answer pointing him to our application forms, I asked "Do you have a minute to visit?" He came in and sat down and we talked.
He and his fiance attend another church in town. They would like their pastor to officiate. So I asked why they wanted to have their wedding here if they already have another church? If the church they choose to worship in is adequate for worshiping God, shouldn't it be adequate for getting married? Why should a wedding demand nicer space than worship? Just a thought.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


We had our council budget meeting last night. It lasted till after 10:00 pm. It was long, grueling, awkward, and necessary. After 26 years of going through budget-making, I realize that there is no easy way. Congregational polity and ownership means scrutiny, questions, and differences of opinion. I was deeply grateful for the integrity and commitment of the men and women who worked long days, ate a quick dinner, and then spent the evening pouring over columns and figures on behalf of the congregation they represent.
Now budget meetings are not nearly as fun as a great worship service or a stimulating Sunday School class or a life-changing mission trip. Budget meetings are not as comforting as a hospital call or as moving as a wedding or funeral service. Budget meetings are not cute like the kids who gather for a children's sermon or as pleasant as a lunch out with a new member. But meetings are not as refreshing as morning devotions over coffee and a lighted candle.
Budget meetings are those tense places where vision and caution collide, where dreams and practicalities push against each other. Budget meetings are where the voice of hope is in a duet with the voice of reason and experience. Budget meetings are where a person really discovers what people believe. It's a place where the different voices and perspectives of the one body of Christ come together to wrestle and then to dance. Budget meetings are a pastoral exercise in how systematic one's theology really is.
I've seen budgets pass without comment and crash and burn. I've seen budget get expanded and reduced. I've won budget battles and I've lost budget battles. And now, years down the road, I'm not sure which ones where which. What's really important is to respect the integrity of my brother or sister in Christ, who's viewpoint and perspective is different than mine is...and who may be right.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In a Hole...with hope

I am still processing what happened Sunday night. The local chaplain for the Santa Barbara County Jail invited me to participate in a Sunday evening service for inmates and take a tour of the facility. Dan is a tall, retired SB fireman and committed Christian. He told me not to worry about remembering the layout, but grab impressions. The first impression: bleak. Jammed spaces with too many bunk-beds and men lounging about, playing cards, trying to sleep, using the facilities. The second impression was of a skin canvas of tatoos. Everyone with their shirts off (because it was hot and fettid inside) seemed to have tatoos on arms, shoulders, backs, chests, and necks. The third impression was hospitality: "Hey, Chaplain Dan, how's it going?" "Will you be back sometime so we can talk." When we were in less secure areas, inmates extended their hands to greet me after shaking Dan's. They were genuinely glad to see Dan (and by osmosis me).
When it came time for the service, it was little more than a sing-along to a boom-box with a printed lyric's sheet and then an inductive Bible study on II Kings. The guys lapped it up. They were so eager and hungry for some hope, some good news, some positive and loving attention, it totally energized me after a long day of church. Dan told me that he heads back on Mondays and responds to requests for visits and spends almost all day going from one inmate to another. Talk about a hole with hope!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Elegy for a Pioneer

My brother's mother-in-law died this past week. Adele Cole was an 81 year old retired Covenant pastor. She was a curious woman. Whenever we would meet, I would lean down and kiss her cheek and she would say loudly "Oh, Donnie Johnson!" Then turning to others she would say, "His brother married my daughter, so kissing me is allowed." Adele was a definite presence wherever she went. She was a full-contact conversationalist, with opinions and thoughts about an incredibly wide range of topics.
But what made her unique in my book of memory was her pioneering spirit as one of the first women in ministry in the Covenant Church. She plowed into the boys' club of ministry with a twinkle and a laugh. She knew who she was and where she belonged without a lot of external approval from the culture or community. It takes a special person to pioneer somewhere; a person not risk-averse or think skinned to criticisms or sniping. Pioneers are not always easy to live with because their fires burn hotter than status quo. They have battles to fight and hills to climb. Adele climbed those hills for other women in ministry and for us men in ministry.

Boomers; too fussy to please

I had a great conversation with a fellow "boomer" about the shrinking presence of our cadre in the local church. I must confess that I am part of the boomer community (though I hate the name, it unfortunately fits). We are a group that demands attention wherever we go. We speak loudly, insist strongly, and leverage our influence any way we can. We get our kids into the right schools, and argue with zoning boards why we deserve a variance but our neighbor does not. Rule definitely do not apply to us, we are exceptional. When Garrison Keilor describes Lake Wobegonians as ones where "All the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average." We lightly laugh, but deep down believe it. We were told by our Dr. Spock-reading parents that we could do anything and be anything we wanted...and we did; we wanted everything.
When it comes to life in the church we are good at laying blame and dodging responsibility. And the lense by which we boomers judge churches is if our kids are happy. When the kids aren't happy and don't like church, heads should roll. That's possibly why there is such a short tenure for youth pastors. When the kids aren't happy, ramp up worship with some new gizmo, gadget or gimmick. We worship with the attention span of a video-game. So from youth ministry we turn out attention to worship leaders and demand music that will make you close your eyes and lift your hands, and clap to the rhythm. In fact, worship became equated with music style (traditional, blended, liturgical, contemporary, emergent, and I'm sure some new ones are on the menu by now).
The problem is that it all remains about us and our personal satisfaction level. "I got a lot out of that" signals success and "I didn't get a thing out of that" is the kiss of death! But for boomers, the thought of what I bring to worship does not enter in. We come to God to get, not to give. We are purchasing a spiritual product. We pay good money for professionals to deliver services.
What brings this all up for me is the high contrast I am experiencing now with a younger generation of believers who is hungry for God without the consumerist edge, the harshness of the demanding customer. Rather, these 20-30 year-olds are showing me new ways of humility and pilgrimage, devotion and service. They ask tough questions; about the nature of church organization, paid clergy, denominational divisions and even existence. But what sets them apart is the lack of anger that is just under the surface of so many boomers; mess with them and watch out. These younger believers really think that loving is the most important character in the church. When I engage them in dialogue and debate, and pull out my language of verbal combat, they look at me with some dismay that I'm behaving unlovingly. They are teaching me the phrase that Richard Mouw coined for me "convicted civility". They have convictions, but not at the cost of being unloving.
So, as harsh as it might sound, church is a lot more fun without barking and demanding boomers.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany Thoughts

The tree comes out of the living room today. All the Christmas decorations are out of the sanctuary, narthex and courtyard. The Advent candles are gone in favor of the lone, tall Christ-candle. Epiphany is here. January 6th is the day Christians of all persuasions mark as Epiphany. The Armenian Orthodox church marks this as Christmas. It is celebrated as the arrival of the Magi with their gifts, or the baptism of Jesus, or, with some, the birth of Jesus. There are all sorts of arcane discussions about Julian and Gregorian calendars and extrapolated dates for events. But the really big news about Epiphany is that it is nowhere to be found at Target, Macy's, Cirucit City or Nordstroms. Epiphany is a non-event for the shopping world. And that's good news.
I have been reading and talking with a number of disillusioned (to the point of burned-out) Christian leaders. Some come from the emergent church and others from more traditional churches. They are disappointed with the way the church is conformed to and captured by culture. And today I began to wonder if the very toughest season of the year for Christian leaders is not Advent/Christmas?
This is the season when, sometimes, culture and church behave at their worst; with intense expectations about traditions and rituals, about things familiar and familial and tender and touching. About excessive spending, eating, decorating, practicing and performing. About too many parties and overstimulation. It's a tough season to sort out the simple and powerful Gospel of Jesus from the competing claims of culture.
Epiphany is far clearer. Epiphany is about the message radiating out. On the sanctuary steps at MCC we have a tableau of a carpet, sandals, tunic and staff. When Jesus sends the disciples out in mark 6:6, he tells them to "take nothing" except "a staff, one tunic and sandals". All they have is his authority over evil spirits and a partner in the journey....and that's enough.
It's a great reminder to me of what it is that I need in my luggage to do ministry: just a Bible. They rest are luxuries (like this laptop, a great office, library, sanctuary, paycheck, pension, insurance, etc.). I like all things things, but they are secondary, not primary to the Gospel.
The point I picked up in Mark 6 is the need to travel with the Gospel "lightly" making a minimal footprint and been flexible and portable. The emergent church is marked just by that minimalism and portability. Christmas clutter is not so minimal and portable, Epiphany is!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Praying the Year Off

Every night a small group gathers in the sanctuary at Montecito Covenant Church to begin the ministry year with prayer. The group is using the Covenant Prayer Guide based on Philemon. With an average worship attendance over 300, the gathering hovers at about 10 people. But in my 26 years of ministry, that's about right. Those who love to just pray are both few in number and prone to do it on their own. In years past in other churches we tried all sorts of ways to "get the people out" to pray: pot-lucks, home groups, tied to events, and, guilt.
Now I just show up (one of Ed Delgado's phrases) and wait to see who else shows up. I don't do any teaching or pontificating on prayer, we just read the lesson, accept some prayer requests and pray. Talk about sweet fun! We get still, and quiet and then the energy flows.
Now, I'm almost tempted facetiously to put a sign on the door saying "Prayer Week in Progress: capacity 10. Come back Sunday"

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hymnal for Limpers

I love the Covenant Hymnal (and other hymnals as well). It probably goes back to my formative years with music and the love of parts. Reading music was part of my growing up culture, so I learned to read music about the same time I learned to tie my shoes. For the community in which I was raised, musical literacy was an assumed proficiency; like ice skating and skiing. Everyone sang or played some instrument. All children in the church were usher through Mrs. Opel's music classes Wednesday night where we learned about whole notes, half notes, rests and time signatures.
That ability has allowed me the freedom to pick up a hymnal and whistle-out (badly) the tune and meter. Where it gets fun is the match the words to the sounds and then to read the stories and backgrounds to those hymns, that come from all sorts of cultures and time periods. It's important, however, to avoid sounding elitist. Because not all communities pushed musical literacy like mine did. A lot of intelligent and wonderfully committed Christians cannot read music, and probably will not read music.
But that's still OK, because most of them read English. And the straight texts of many of these hymns, especially the ones that have survived several generations, are devotionally superb! They condense great spiritual truths into tight phrases that can get planted in the heart and mind.
Olavi Kaukolo, a Finish pastor who wrote "Riches of Prayer" said: "The hymnal can be a crutch of one whose prayer limp."

From Tourist to Pilgrim

Last night Martha and I finished New Year's Day with a quiet walk along State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. Most of the shops were closed, a few restaurants were open and little clusters of tourists wandered along in the cool night air. One group of girls caught my attention because one girl had her cell phone glued to her head and said as we walked by "Yeah, Dad, can you believe it? I'm walking outside in Santa Barbara right now??" It was the wonder of a tourist from some cold place enjoying her last day of vacation before flying home to work and routine. Santa Barbara is a tourist destination location because of its costal beauty and temperate climate.
Last year I clearly was a tourist because each month was new for me. Each holiday was new. Each 'season' was a new experience and I called my friends back in the midwest with new discoveries. Being a tourist is really fun because our eyes are wide open to the new. Seeing new sights and new locations, tasting new foods and meeting new people is a kind of rush. We live on the adrenaline of first impressions and surface observations.
One can't go through life not being a tourist at different points and times. Whenever we venture into a new territory we are, by definition 'tourists' for a while. But it's really fun to morph from being a tourist into a pilgrim, one who walks slower and observes longer. A pilgrim is a journier who is not in a hurry, but is not a resident. A pilgrim is an intentional traveler, following directions, both at ease and restless. A pilgrim depends on the hospitality of the community for survival, while tourists pay their fees and get their services. Pilgrims build relationships while tourists build albums and mementos.
As 2007 begins for me as a believer, pastor, husband, father, friend, I acknowledge my pilgrim status and pray for God to guide my steps.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Beginning the Year with Death

I was running a grocery errand when my cell phone rang. It was my dad, who cut to the chase "Don, we've just heard some terrible news. Gary just died." Gary Carlson was a childhood friend from my growing up years in St. Paul. His folks, Roger and Kay were very close to my folks. The Carlsons had three children, Gary the eldest, Tom, my age, and Joan, my sister's age. We went to the same schools, ice skated together, learned to ski together, were part of the same youth group. Gary, being 2 years older was a role-model whose approval I always sought.
We went different ways after college and my seminary, but he was part of the story of who I am as a product of St. Paul and First Covenant Church, for good and ill. While we have not talked in 15 years, a part of me died when Gary died this morning in Illinois as he battled with prostate cancer. Pray for his wife Meredith and kids. Peace to his memory.

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