Monday, April 30, 2007


Our attention span as a culture is reaching new lows. Our tv screens have continuous scrolling of news events, logos, and clever animated inserts. A recent confirmand critiqued my preaching as OK, but needing some "commercial breaks" so she could stay focussed. A L.A. music producer is trying to market music clips of no more than 3 minutes, declaring that in 3 minutes he can edit the essence of the number: classical, jazz, rock, alternative to keep the audience from drifting.
Now today Sony corporation is introducing "Minisode Network". These are 3 minute distillations of the essence of a 30 minute show geared for My-Space and cell-phones. The premier show will be none-other-than Charlies' Angel, the original version with Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith. A recorded voice, some gun shots, a chase, the catch, all in 3 minutes.
What's shocking is that it's not really shocking. We all knew that the shows like that we watched (including A-Team) had about 3 minutes of content to 26 minutes of fluff (or swim suits).
The question is: is this necessarily bad? Does it not reflect the core of our formulaic culture? Is not Sony really declaring that the king has no clothes in the TV culture? We think 24, Survivor, Lost, Sopranos are new media-literary creativity. But coldn't they too be distilled down to their own 3 minute essence?
The complex use of language and plot has been long traded in for flash and dash. Special effects and computer graphics dominate over character development and pursuit of truth. Now, how about worship? Could a Sunday morning worship time be editted and distilled into 3 minutes? A call, a shot, a chase, a catch? Could this innauguarate a sermon genre specially tooled for My-Space? And, seriously, is that necessarily wrong? How long does it take to read one of Jesus' parables?

Torture Porn: NO

Today's NYT's business section features a long article about the economic downturn the Virginia Tech slayings will have on a genre of film the industry self-describes as "torture porn." These are the current horror movies with titles like "Hostel: Part II", "Saw", "Dead Silence", "The Hills Have Eyes", "Grindhouse", "The Reaping", and "Vacancy".
The formula is simple: beautiful bodies (usually women), sex, blood and gore, fear and screaming. There is no good outcome for this. This is spiritually toxic. So why write about it? I make a plea to all youth pastors to push for a boycott of this mind-trash. Use your incredible media savvy and creativity to divert away from and divert to something of substance and value, something that creates a good.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mens' Manly Weekend

Hume Lake Christian Camp is a non-denominational cmap located in the Sierra Madre Mountains about 5 hours from Santa Barbara. I was invited to join a guy from our church with his son, 2 grandsons, and another man and his son for a Men's Fishing Weekend. This is not something I normally do; gather with camo-greared men with 4-wheel drives for a fishing derby. But I love the man who invited me and knew this was the right thing to do.
The camp is located about 5,000 feet in the mountains surrounded by tall Sequoia trees. The boys who accompanied us could not think of anything in the world more exciting than fishing with their dads, grandpa and even pastor. I actually caught one fish; a small trout they assured me was just within limits. I think it was just about reaching fish adolescence when I took its life.

The food was totally manly...read meat, gravy, fried and grilled foods, lots of deserts, and killer breakfasts!
The guys would sit around and lie about exploits; how many fish they caught, how many deer they killed, how many horse-power their boat at home was,etc. None of us shaved and some wore baseball hats everywhere. Our gathering activities were manly too; how much pain you could endure or how long you could hold a squatting position.
But last night, the speaker within the first 10 minutes of his talk, gave a call for men who did not know Jesus and would like to to stand right where they were. He made the call clear and straight, no emotional stories or pitches. This is what faith in Jesus is, if you want it, stand up now. And about 15 did in the audience of 400. He asked the men standing if they knew of a real Christian in the audience with them. All of them did, from church friends to grandpas. He then invited those men to take these standing men outside and pray with them. Friends praying for friends. I saw some of these manly men, who I discounted as just guys who came to fish, stand up in a hurry to rush outside to pray with their friends who came with them. These were manly men who really loved their friends and would do anything for them to know Jesus...and they did.

We skipped morning chapel and went to a giant sequoia forest where "General Grant" tree was: 1,700 years old and 40 feet in diameter. There we gathered for Psalms, prayer and worship...just us men.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Faithful or Relevant?

The two poles from which many discussions (arguments) in the church are based are those who strive to be faithful first and those who have an urgency to be relevant. I heard this discussed in a pod-cast by a guy named Roxbury. It echoed deeply in my experience. For some, singing the mass in Latin is really the only way to do it. "Agnus Dei" is being faithful to the intention and spirit of the work. For some newcomers, they are sure it's about a dear woman named Agnes Day. The other extreme of the conversation is so seeker sensitive that anything more than 3 years old needs to be dumped. Only if something was written or produced by people I know is it valuable, otherwise it belongs to the dustbin of antiquity. One has depth without application and the other is application without depth.
This conversation happens in worship discussions, mission discussions, curricula discussions, architecture discussions and even the discusisons about what names to give churches or classes. It's as if being faithful excludes being relevant or if it's faithful to our tradition and history it must be worthless. The worst offenders are those of my generation; the boomers. Those who are younger are often far more eager to know about a hymn or to hear a choir than my cohort. Those of the older years are far more flexible to new sounds if they come with integrity and speak to the youth. It's the boomers who are more often the pain to deal with.
The podcast I heard argued eloquently for insisting that both faithfulness and relevance must always be held together in the missional church. The relevant is effective only because it's being faithful and the faithful has lasted over time because it is eternally relevant (oxymoron?).
On another note, I'm off on a new adventure today for the weekend. I'm accompanying a bunch of guys from our church on a men & boys fishing weekend. It seems that there is a long-standing weekend retreat by a Christian outfit that hosts a spiritual fishing weekend. Those who know me know that I fish about as well as I play golf, so the question is for whom will this be more of an adventure; me or my host?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Loyalty to Staff

The Attorney General's testimony before Congress was painful to listen to. I was driving that day and listened to long portions on NPR. The questions from both Republican and Democrat were tough to the point of brutal. His answers were defensive and less-than-convincing to me. At the end of the day, I listened to the "analysts" describe next-outcomes. Most agreed that he performed poorly and should probably resign, but, it all depended on the President. He serves at the will of the President. For the next several days, the official word from the White House was approval of the Attorney General's answers and satisfaction with his performance. The President loyally supports his staff. That quality is a hall-mark of the Bush administration: loyalty.
The question I've been mulling over is when is staff loyalty a good thing and when is it a bad thing? When does leadership loyalty within a staff build cohesion and strength? And when is it a sign of a leadership out of touch with the reality on the ground?
I've done it both ways. In former churches I have had members bring withering criticisms to me about their satisfaction with staff member's performance. Normally one strident voice is just that, one strident voice that needs to be listened to and directed into a healthy conversation with the affected staff member. It is too easy to get triangulated between an angry member who tells you their problem, but does not allow you to go to the concerned staff person with the issue and their name attached to it. It is different, however, when the numbers of members who disapprove of a staff person grows and their logic has weight. Maybe a staff person is burning out. Maybe they just do not have the vision or skills to take their ministry area where it needs to go. Maybe their interpersonal style has, over time, burned too many bridges.
In those times, I think healthy leadership gets on the front end and guides staff members to see that their time of effectiveness is over and that they need to take moves to find something else. Our President reluctantly did that with UN Ambassador Bolton, though not without some pique. We, as pastors and staff leaders, need to always have loyalty to the staff God allows us to work with a top priority. Church staffs need to know that they are not cannon fodder to protect the senior pastor, nor human shields to take criticisms off the "boss." Insead, they deserve to know clearly and lovingly how they are doing. I think the same process needs to be in place bewteen a solo or senior pastor and his/her governing board. That's why I have always had in place a standing Personell Realtions Committee that meets (optimally) quarterly to talk about the climate, direction and issues within the congregation. That way, most crises can be resolved before they heat up and get out of hand.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Here's to Sandi, who makes us all look good!

I found out that today was Administrative Assistant Day (didn't that used to be Secretary's Day?) I hurried out and got a bouquet of flowers for Sandi, the Administrative Assistant at MCC. She makes us all look good by answering the phone with a smile, by having a first response to callers that is "Yes, we can try to help you!", by laughing a lot, by having a bowl full of candy on the front desk, by poking her head in the door and asking if I need anything before she goes, by interrupting a meeting saying "I think you need to take this call", by finding something loveable in just about everybody, by being willing to take out the trash, make the coffee, give tardy people extensions, and by loving Jesus.
When I look back on the many secretaries and administrative assistants I have been privileged to work with, I think about how much they shaped me. Judy began with me in Lafayette. I was fresh out of seminary and full of energy and optimism. Judy, wife and mother of two girls, was non-negotiably loyal to me first. She went of of her way to make me look much better than I was. When I left the church, Judy resigned. She said that we had too much fun for her to try to get close to the next pastor. We remain friends.
Sally ran the church in Muskegon. She was in charge and on top of everything. Sally, however, had worked for other pastors and was not about to give me a blank check of loyalty right of the bat. I had to earn her trust. That too was a gift, teaching me to earn loyalty dialy from someone who worked side-by-side with me. Sally toughened me to face conflicts I did not face in Lafayette. And when I left after 7 1/2 years, Sally stayed on...she's still there, keeping things straight and honest.
When I came to Salem, Karen was my secretary and was my predecessor's as well. She taught me about transitions and knowing the deeper stories of people and their families. Salem was a community with a long history and deep relationships. Karen read the map for me. During our Salem years I learned how a secretary could carry me. These were the years we faced family crises like our daughter's cancer, a house fire and car wrecks. Karen covered for me when I was too wonded. She learned to do that when my predecessor's son died. She knew how to care for suffering pastors. After Karen I had Kim as my secretary, loyal mother and wife who had incredible hard work and organization. She was as faithful to the church as a person could be. When a conflict happened between me and her husband, I saw an honorable woman stand by her husband and work for a pastor who caused her husband pain. Patrice was my last secretary at Salem. She brought a dry humor and deep deep love for literature and liturgy. We would crack liturgical jokes and send each other CS Lewis or Malcom Muggeridge quotes. She was a Baptist turned Anglican but evangelical underneath. Patrice created a quiet calm in the staff because of integrity and depth.
Suzanne was the secretary who welcomed me into Santa Barbara and knew the ropes for everything. Suzanne graciously extended her time with the church to get me up and running, though she had deep and wonderful loyalty to my predecessor. Though we could disagree, she helped me step into both the Montecito Church and California culture. Then, after about a year, she retired and Sandi arrived. Just listing this string of administrative assistants is proof of God and providence!
Thank you all for keeping me going in the right direction!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Best Conference Annual Meeting Ever!

I really don't like meetings I'm not running. Seth Godin recently blogged about needless meetings and how to cut through the wasted time and human resources. In 26 years of being a Covenant pastor, some of the worst meetings have been Conference and Denominational Annual Meetings. The response of some delegates to being asked to represent the church is "Why me? What did I do wrong?" These two types of annual meetings usually violate several key guidelines: they major on the minors (long multipaged financial reports with unreadable power-point slides), they are dominated by mic-hogs, people who once in front of a microphone, can't leave, or get lost in floor debates about Robert's Rules of order. They make the delegate ask themselves "why is it that I am here?". Over the past 10-12 years, I have accumulated a reputation for leaving meetings early, stepping out for long coffee breaks in frustration, or looking for any reason why not to attend.
So it was with some trepidation that I drove to Simi Valley Covenant Church for the Pacific Southwest Conference (PSWC) Annual Meeting. My world got rocked! The best overview came from the retiring Treasurer who said "We need to have a standing order for Kleenex boxes from now on." Never have I teared up so often for good reasons. Reports became witnesses. There were no mic-hogs, but a desire by the Superintendent Evelyn Johnson and her staff to get others up to the mic to tell their stories of God's amazing, life-transforming work in their congregations. We applauded and stood, sang and prayed and sniffled back tears. One Covenant pastor leaned over to me and said "This is a blueprint for how to run a meeting!" Kudo's to Evelyn Johnson and the Executive Board for a GREAT MEETING!

Youth Group Touched by God

Today's Sunday School class was a combined forum for the Youth Group to give witness to how God touched their lives during a recent mission's trip to New Orleans rebuilding broken homes. Student after student stood confidently before the gathered church group (75+) and told how God has changed their lives indellibly. How cool is that? They reached out and touched the lives of strangers, went into devastated homes and did dirty work...and God touched them in the touching.

Friday, April 20, 2007

No Wi-Fi!!

Wi-Fi should be required at every church and available for every church gathering. North Park Theological Seminary has wi-fi, but it is encrypted with a visitor's button. The button allows surfing but no email?!?! What's with that? NPU library has full access wi-fi, as it should. What century is the seminary still in?
Simi Valley Covenant Church, where the PSWC is meeting is a lovely setting...with no wi-fi, not even encrypted. How can a church operate without wi-fi? I guess like denominational leaders who don't blog. So, I'm "fasting" for these meetings, leaving my lap-top at home. What will I do during the drier presentations? I guess it's time to take walks and drink coffee.

What Covenant Pastors Want

Denominational Executive reports are rarely exciting. Usually they are a recitation of what we already know, but sweetened up to promote some new intitiative for which they would like local church support. Yesterday, however, Rev.David Kersten, Executive Minister for Ordered Ministry presented a report to the gathered pastors of the Pacific Southwest Conference at Sii Valley Covenant Church that was really significant. The Lilly Grant that allowed the Covenant to start "Sustaining Pastoral Excellence" requires internal review of progress. So the Department of Ordered Ministry (they call it "DOOM") conducted 30 listening sesssions with pastors and came up with six areas of need. It is a work in progress, but Dave gave me persmission to share this with you. Here is what pastors around the country are saying they need:
1. They (read "we" if you are a Covenant pastor) want denominational leaders to show up more often with a few questions and no agenda to create a listening presence. They indicate that they see themselves (pastoral community) as a wisdom-base for the denomination, not a power-point audience.
2. We want a more Muscular Accountability. We want a community of pastors that sees failure in self-care as malfeasence. One word that came up over and over again was "enforceable". The pastoral community has grown too large to simply let organic relationships be the nature of our community. It must be intentional.
3. We need a clearer method for Conflict Resolution on the local and conference level. Too often as conflict increases between a local church and pastor, the role of Superintendent gets weighted on the side of the congregation, blurring who the pastor can trust. That is not wrong, but needs clarity and a designated advocate for the pastor.
4. Better training in Systems-Thinking and Cahnge-Management for pastors.
5. Change the language of "self-care" (borrowed from the therapeutic community) to "soul-care" without diminishing personal responsibility. A concern expressed a great deal is that pastors are not maintaining a sufficient interior life to sustain a public ministry presence over the long-haul and are often living in a spiritual deficit that leads to collapse.
6. Clear and do-abel, life-long learning pathways so that the clergy become less known as learned (as in degree accumulation) and more as learning.
Expect to hear more about this coming from Covenant Leadership. Kudos to the work!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Serra Retreat Center Pastors' Retreat

Nestled up in the hills off of Highway 1 in Malibu is a Franciscan Retreat Center called Serra Retreat, run out of St. Joseph's Church in Los Angeles, the 26 acre Center was purchased from the Frederick Rindge estate in 1942 for $50,000. Today eight Covenant pastors from the PSWC and David Kerstens gathered for a time of guided reflection on John 13:1-17, quiet and prayer. Part of my reflection is here on this blog.
Clusters are geographic groups of Covenant churches throughout the country. Each cluster has an assigned leader by the regional conference ministerial association. The motivating concern is not one more set of meetings for political maneuvering, but a comprehensive way to care for pastors. I recently read that of my graduating seminary class in 1980, only 10-20% are still in active ministry! Loneliness, burnout, and finances are just some of the reasons for the shrinkage. Some say the life of the local pastor has increased in magnitude of stress because of diminishing church-going population, multiple-church attendance (some families I know are actively part of 3 local churches simultaneously) and heightened "customer satisfaction" issues. The general population put more demands and expectations on pastors.
So we gathered for a hour to share about our current situations and the situations of the cluster of churches around us. Then we were sent off into the sun with John 13:1-17 to read, pray, reflect and ponder on. Witht he wind blowing down from the hills out onto the ocean, three things jumped out at me: Jesus knew "the time had come", Jesus "knew that the Father had put all things under his power" and he asked his disciples if they "understand what I have done for you?"
What time is it, really? Time chases me. Time is not always my friend. I often feel chronically late and behind. Jesus knew the time. He knew when something was ending and something else was beginning. I need to know Jesus' time. Jesus also knew that the Father was in control. This passage has Judas betraying him and Peter arguing with him. That would set me off wacky! I get distracted by critics and crises. I try to fix immediate problems with all the energy I can muster, forgetting that God is in control. I get anxious and worried that if I don't do something right now, in a hurry, this person will be upset or that person will leave the church for a better one. Jesus meaningfully engaged the disciples with a question when he was done washing their feet. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" Too much of my language is filled with didactic statements, arguing for , selling, defending, pushing. So much of our language today is the language of combat. Some conversations sound like a contact sport. Jesus is comofrtable with a question that is not a set-up, but a genuine question that invites the disciple in. More questions, less statements.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Anxiety = Action

Recently I wrote a blog on the relationship between responsibility and authority. If commensurate authority is not granted to those with responsibility, you create a formula for ulcers (eg: you are responsible for the weather and will be evaluated on it). Several people commented on the need for accountability to be demanded from those with authority, otherwise you have dictatorships and abuse of power.
Kenton Anderson was talking with me today and talked about a similar equation: linking anxiety to action. When I encounter something that creates anxiety, I need to take some sort of action to diminish the threat and to lower my anxiety. If, for instance, the weather forecast calls for a severe storm, I take action by going inside the house to a safe room in the house and not sit outside and worry.
With the Virginia Tech tragedy unfolding non-stop on TV and newspapers, are we not perpetuating anxiety without any action response. I keep seeing police cars racing down streets with their sirens on and police officers running from their cars with guns drawn. Bodies keep getting dragged out of the buildings and a shaky camera video keeps echoing shots. I wonder, does this repetition help me in any way? Is it giving me anything new to process, know or do something about?
That led to a tangential thought about the video shows of worlds worst accidents, most dangerous animals, etc. We know something bad is going to happen. And it does, and they play it over again, but this time slowly, so we can savor the pain. Is this not kind of pornographic in a way? It draws us into something that does us no good, in fact scars our souls and etches our memories?
Maybe it's time to turn off the tv.

1st person shooter world

Brad Boydston's recent blog captured an essential sadness when he said that the Virginia Tech news sorrows us but does not shock us. We are getting used to a 1st-person shooter world. The graphic cell-phone video captured by a student looks in many ways like a tv screen image of a shooter-game. Latest games spurt blood and body-parts. Quentin Tarratino is macabre-master at creating gore so life-like it becomes dark humor, camp genre. With special effects and high end computer graphics' special effects, we are addicted to ever-heightened degrees of violence up close and intimate. Utimate fighting, ultimate sports, crashes and "Jack-Ass" movies create a new genre of comedy premised on pain and violence.
When I walked through the Roman Colossuem several years ago, I tried to get a sense of the scale of violence people grew to love and appreciate. The space could be flooded for real-life naval battles or turned into a race track or lion pit. The technology the Roman Empire harnessed to make violence acceptable is incredible. When will we say no with as much force as we said no to Don Imus's use of racial epithets? When will the Covenant boycott hotel facilities that cater to pay-per-view pornography? When will youth pastors as block say no to violent video-games?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech Slaughterhouse & Kurt Vonnegut

April 16th. Taxes have to get posted today. It's a big check to Uncle Sam. And then I need to get Martha to the Air Bus shuttle for her trip to Mexico and make lunch for Phyllis so she can eat in time for her flight home to Muskegon. Then there is the list of things that have to get done: new tires for the car, groceries, shirts to be laundered, and the floor to be vacuumed, yes that floor was top on Martha's list before she took off this morning. Then the plumbers came for the leak in the kitchen in the gym.
Then I turned on the radio and heard about the rampage at Virginia Tech. And all else faded into the backwater of trivia and non-essential.
32 dead including the gunman. A morning of terror as I was running errands and getting my hair cut. Chaos descending on the innocent for reasons that will be speculated and spun by countless news anchors and editorials. The highest, largest, worst, most deadly bringing a new notariety to a school known for brilliant geeks and techy students.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in "Slaughterhous Five" (I think, since it was so long ago that I read it) how he was trying to quit smoking as a prisoner of war. He was locked deep beneath the city of Dresden Germany, doing basically slave labor and endlessly fussing about his own health and making his top priority to quit smoking.
Then the Allies unleashed a hellish bombing on Dresden, creating a firestorm that sucked the life out of virtually everyone on the streets. Vonnegut was deep beneath the city in some sort of labor camp. When he emerged and witnessed hell on earth, he immediately began smoking.
I have no desire to take up cigarettes, but the shocking killings jolt me to reassess what I was considering important and priorities this morning. Are not some of those things that get me all worked up really, in the end, pretty trivial? Am I doing what is of consequence to bring about peace and the reign of Christ or am I "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?"
More legislation is not necessarily the most critical response. Schools and state governments must re-examine campus safety and gun purchasing ability. But on the deeper level; who was this gunman? What kind of craziness was in his head? Who could have intervened in his life? Who are those in my community who live on the edge? Who need a warm human touch? Who need to be directed to health professionals? Wat really important?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Off the Road....On the Road

Being on the road the last two days was so helpful to catch the essence of the text for this Sunday, Luke 24: 13-35. 36 hours of travel in airplanes, trains and busses does something to sensitize a pastor to roadies, to those who live out of suitcases and hotel rooms. It is gruelling and monotonous, hence the ipod buds poking out of so many ears on dazed and blank faces. Draw no attention, keep moving, hope you are not delayed.

The road to Emmaus was probably not the romantic and idyllic road of religious art work, filled with puffy clouds and leafy trees. It was probably a well-worn doney path, dusty and dirty, used for generations by merchants and travelers, and now by disapointed disciples. It's not so much the road that matter, but who we meet on the road. And the roads are no longer limited to geographical roads, they can be relational roads, career roads, health roads, financial roads, and spiritual roads. Who is meeting you? Who asks you what you are talking about? Who opens Scripture and explains it to you? When did your heart last burn in recognition?

Responsibility = Authority

"You are in charge." "And here is how you should/should not do it." That too often is a conversation I am a part of or overhear. Groups, committees, professionals are tasked with a responsibility. They are held accountable for the completion of a task, project or just the successful leadership of a team or organization.
The dilemma arises when those to whom they are accountable, limit their authority to act, decide or spend money. I was just part of a conversation at North Park Theological Seminary "Center for Spiritual Direction" where we, as the Excutive Team, were perplexed by what we could and could not decide. There were all sorts of institutional limitations and ambiguities about what we had any authority over. That got my mind racing on this formula: RESPONSIBILITY MUST BE LINKED TO AUTHORITY or else you have a formula for high stress. I'm sure I stole this formula from some consultant or author (for which I beg forgiveness). But the essence is so true and so liberating. When an organization tasks a person or group to accomplish something, they must provide adequate authority to get the job done.
This does not mean unliited authority (to sell the company or fire the board). All authority must operate within accountability structures. The governing entity must delineate waht sorts of authority it grants to the committee or professional and then step away and let them lead. The authority granted will either be well-used and justified or mis-used and face consequences.
At the church I serve, I see this happen all the time. Liam, our interim Director of Student Ministries, received permission to hold a garage sale. It is his first garage sale. In fact, it is going on right now as I write this, over in the gym. It was amazing how many theories there are about how a garage sale SHOULD be run: set prices, individual prices, early sales, no early sales, reduce to get rid of it all, keep some around for other sales, advertise, etc. It was amazing that I discovered I had my opinions about youth ministry garage sales as well (what former youth pastor doesn't?) But it's not my sale...it's Liam's. And I need to butt out and let him make good or poor decisions.
When the former church I served went to a Team Leadership model, one of the first things we did was to draft long lists of limitations; those areas of church life about which we were excluded from making decisions (eg pastors could not handle finances). What that did was to set the church leaders free to focus where they should invest their energies. We were doing the best job I ever experienced about tying authority to responsibility and holding those persons and groups responsible for outcomes, not processes.
All of this discussion comes down to trust. Do we trust those we place in responsibly positions to lead? If I don't trust Liam to run a Student Ministry garage sale, then maybe I should be the Student Ministry Director instead (which I do not want to be). The challenge of governance is to freely exchange ideas and opinions (even contrary ones) in open forums, and then let those in charge make their decisions. Otherwise governing bodies revert to micro-management and not leadership and leaders are discouraged to innovate and lead.

Friday, April 13, 2007

CTA rocks!

I completed my on-the-road journey this morning with a bouncing, screeching ride on the blue-line train to Jefferson park where I took the Foster Ave 92 bus to North Park. I mixed Northwestern College Choir's Transformation album with John Mayer for an interesting ride in the cold morning air. Now I'm in the holding pen called O'Hare, waiting for a long flight home via Phoenix. I think I hear Starbucks calling my name, even though I have ethical problems with their pay-scale. Caffeine wins!

Center for Spiritual Direction

After a too long flight (arriving in Chicago at 3:45 am) and a too early meeting (9:00 a.m) the Center for Spritual Direction Executive Team (CSD) met at the seminary for four hours today. There is good news and there is challenging news. The good news is that the CSD is in its thrid summer, with an incoming cohort of 20 persons, well-balanced between men/women, clergy/lay, and diverse ethnic background.
We oversee the course outlines for each year, and were really impressed with both the depth and breadth of topics and presenters. As Lilly Grant funding winds down, we are seeing a greater percentage of lay persons entering this certificate program.
But the challenging questions revolve around the two poles of responsbility (do it) and authority (resources to do it). I t seems like this innovative program is the orphan child in the institution. Everyone likes it, but not all departments was to help fund it and put their money and staff towards its support. This dilemma is not so much of a blame-game or slamming of denominational leaders, but a discussion about capacity and flexibility. Does the Covenant (both denomination and seminary) have a flexible enough structure to meaningfully support new initiatives in new ways, or must they conform to old ways of control and commnad on the desks of already overworked faculty, staff and elected leaders?
As I listened as an outsider pastor, I thought about the corporate cultures that are struggling to survive and those that are thriving. Vision and capacity for change and risk are big qualities in those that thrive, and reactivity and bureacratizing are marks of the dinosaurs of resistance (will Ford and General motors survive in 10 years?) Does a 123 year old denomination have the flexibility for the next 123 years?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On the Road...Emmaus?

The text for Sunday is Luke 24, the story of the two guys on the road to Emmaus. The romatic oil painting is familiar to most of us. But I chose to look at what it means to be "on the road." On the road is a traveler's designation. "I'm on the road this week." is familiar to all of us. What about the other "roads" we travel? Long commutes, obligations to organizations, foot traffic, recreational travel? All these are "road" places.
Then I headed to the airport for a routine trip to Chicago via Las Vegas at 2pm. Too much wind. Planes couldn't land. We were all rescheduled on different flights in an interminably long line. Now I'm still on the road here in beautiful Santa Barbara and have not even left the airport. What do you do when you are on the road? You think, reflect, observe, snooze, write down thoughts, blog, watch birds fly into the terminal, listen to your ipod, read books and magazines, maybe over-hear conversations, talk on your cell phone, and sometimes, just sometimes, engage in a conversation.
I wonder where Jesus is in this terminal as I'm on the road waiting? My heart is not burning...yet.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Garage Sale Queens

You could hear the laughter outside in the courtyard. Four women were in the gym helping sort, arrange and price items for the MCC Gargae Sale that begins this Saturday from 8am till noon. When I went in to explore I found these four, a pastor, two sisters and a mother having way way too much fun. The items are wide ranging from epressive clothing to costume jewelry to chairs to silver services and table saws. I became concerned at this level of joy and laughter. I'm afraid it might get contagious. So if you are afraid of too much laghter in your life, besure to stay away from MCC this coming Saturday morning!!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Stewardship Thought

Stewardship as a topic creates immediate reactions, usually defensive and negative. Worshipers ask me if the tithe "has" to go to the local church, and if so where is that in scripture? I answer that it does not "need" to go totally to the local church because scripture has a wide range of instructions how to give how much where. Worshipers ask me if it's OK for them to split their tithe among various ministries and missions they have commitments to? I again say "yes" God's work in the world is much wider than any one church or one denomination.
But yesterday, a woman came up to me excited (yes, actually excited) about the quote I used in worship just before the offering and what I said. The quote came from an anonymous source: "One can give without loving but one cannot love without giving." And what I said to the congregation was 2 truths for me: (1) I give away a lot of money without much love: fines, fees, taxes, bills, and supplies. They are legitimate and necessary expenses, but I have no love for the cable company. (2) But those whom I love, I MUST give to. I cannot travel without thinking of bringing something back to Martha (or when we go together to bring back to the kids). I love surprising Martha with an unexpected gift. In fact, I never buy flowers for her when we shop together, letting her choose the type and colors. I like to bring them home spontaneously...because I love her. Then I asked the congregation to let their giving today be a love response to God. Give only as much as you love, no more and no less.
This woman told me she never thought about offerings as a love-response. It was always missional and dutiful, an obligation pledged to do. She said she came to worship so in love with God, she emptied out her purse and wallet, giving God all she had, beaming with joy. This is not a crack-pot person, but a respected professional.
Here is the thought: the local church in worshiping together gives people the occaison to love God back. We don't always do that alone. Corporate worship, with music and testimonies, prayer and sharing helps me remember how much in love I am with God....and I have to give!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Starbucks: fair trade or fair trade?

"On March 30, the National Labor Relations Board's New Yourk office delivered a stinging accusation against one of the city's- and the nation's - most popular retail outlets." Starbucks is under the gun. According to the April 8 NYT's Week In REview article by Daniel Gross, Starbucks is firing employees who are supportive of unionization. It seems that this wonderful retailer of great coffee pays it's Manhattan baristas $8.75 per/hour and does not want to be forced to pay more.
That's too bad. It's such a cool place to drink coffee, hang out and do wi-fi. There are well-publicized promotions for their venture into eco-friendly coffee and farmer friendly ways of buying more directly from producers. But what about at home?
I know at the churches I have served we have run into the ethical line; keep a person part-time and avoid paying full-time benefits and maybe create multipe part-time positions. Or pay a person a living wage including good health care insurance?
Unions are seen to be old dinosaurs of back-rooms filled with cigar-smoking crooks or Washington DC fat-cat lobbyists. But who does speak for the working poor?

Phyllis & the New York Times

Phyllis Dieters is with us from Muskegon. Now she is enjoying the afternoon quiet with the world,s best newspaper!!


Here is Isaac wondering what I am trying to do.

The Power of Waves

Whenever our son Isaac visits, he insists on swimming, every day, regardless of the weather. That was fine in the early Fall and even December. But when the currents changed and the water got cold, I stopped swimming. So when Isaac visited over Easter, he went swimming. I got smart and borrowed a wet-suit and joined him this afternoon at a surfer beach called Mir Mar. The sky was steely grey and the water was cold, even through a wet suit (Isaac did not wear a wet-suit, just swimming trunks).
We got out into the water and the waves were breaking in sets of three and four, with a dozen or so small waves in between. As we body surfed, the waves got bigger and began tumbling me head over heals.
Those waves carry some serious power. After a while, I felt pretty tumbled, with much looser joints than when i entered the water. The waves did something to me. And so does worship. Today worship had a tumbling quality about it. It kind of took on a momentum of its own, at least among those of us who led it. Maybe it's a good practice to go body surfing after worship, to let my body get caught up with my spirit, tumbled in the power of God.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hanging Out with Isaac

Isaac flew in to spend Easter with us. This time he flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and rented this huge Jeep Commander (or Commandeerer or may Grand Inquisitor). Anyway, he loved driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, getting in around 2 am Friday. We picked up a good family friend from Muskegon, Michigan on Friday afternoon and enjoyed a late dinner all together Friday night after the Good Friday service. Today Isaac drove the big "C" car and we did some shopping together and just hanging out while Martha and Phyllis were busy baking all sorts of great stuff for tomorrow.

But Isaac is a water-baby. He's always been the first in the water and the last out. He brought along his suit and said he was going swimming. When I told him that the water was just barely 60 degrees, he said "So? It's better than Lake Superior!" and in he went. I sat on the shore with my cup of coffee and camera as he body-surfed for over an hour. Then we just stood together in the late afternoon sun as he let the sun dry him off and we talked about stuff, just stuff, some random, some important. We did things together you can't plan, but do as you hang out.
I think I discovered in my quick visit to my parents last week in Minneapolis, that they just wanted me to hang out with them. Nothing special, just breathe the same air and let conversations ramble, sprinkled with smiles and even tears. Email and phone calls are great, but hanging out does it.

Easter Sermon without Words

Ever since Martha and Jeanne began to illustrate worship with altar-pieces designed around the text of the day, worship energy has been ramped up to a new level. Worshipers at MCC still care about preaching and singing, but now they look forward to seeing. the Holy Week settings for the sanctuary have been profoundly different

With palms strewn on the floor of the chancel and the Christ candle standing tall in the middle, like Jesus did in the crowds to
a sanctuary stripped bare, with only the shrowd, Christ-candle and seven little candles for the seven last words.
Then on Sunday morning the chancel leaps with energy through a branch construction called "Ascension" by Trace Robinson, surrounded by a glade of brightly colored flowers. Friday was a morgue and Sunday is a celebration...and not a word has been spoken....yet!

Good Friday & Georges Rouault

Getting a sanctuary ready for Good Friday is easier said than done. "You're taking THAT out of the sanctuary too?" I heard. We even debated how to drape the cross with black cloth. My approach was to make it crude and ugly while Martha and Jeanne argued for something flowing. Ultimately, they did a great job stripping the sanctuary to bare bones: the singular cloth hanging over one arm of the cross, the Christ-candle alone on the bare flow of the apse and 7 little candles wrapped with string on the ledges.
Diana Trautwein constructed the service around the seven last words of Christ and added responsive comments or readings to each word. Dan Bos and the musical team of piano, violin and oboe added a plaintive sound to hymns and Taize songs throughout the evening.

Martha scoured her art-history books and found an evocative array of classical works of art depicting the crucifixion. They began with full color oil paintings, carving, a Rembrandt etching and then the dark prints of Christ by Georges Roualt. They were on the screen at each successive reading, staring down at us as we became the spectators at the crucifixion. Then, after the last reading, to the instrumental sound of "Were You There?" I walked the Christ-candle out of the now totally dark sanctuary into the night air. The congregation sat in stillness for several minutes, an uncomfortably long time for me out on the patio, but right for them.
Now this morning, all is silent in the sanctuary till afternoon, when crews of people will fill the space back up with flowers and decorations of hope and resurrection.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Soup, a Foot-Wash and a Meal

I'm hooked on numbers. I get jazzed when I see our average attendance grow each year. I am encouraged when giving goes up. I like seeing more people coming to Bible studies and youth groups. So when we planned a maundy Thursday soup supper, foot washing and communion service, I was expecting growth, at least 100. So we planned for 80, hoping to pull out more tables for the additional 20. The committee decorated the gym and wonderful soup and bread was set out. By the time we sat down after 6 pm, there were just about 35 of us.
Then God smacked me right where it hurt, it the pride-socket. I looked at this intimate group of friends and strangers, spanning in age from 13-93. They were laughing and relxed, thoroughly delighted that they could enjoy a good meal and conversation.

After a lingering meal, we prepared for foot-washing; a men's bench, women's bench and a family bench where couples and families could wash each other's feet. This was a moving time. I let our college intern Kevin wash my feet, hand dry them and bless me. And I watched him wash otehr men's feet in the same tender way. Across the way women were washing each other's feet and down at the end, couples were kneeling at each other's feet, washing them with love.
By the time we were all done and ready for communion, there was little I could say that had not been said with water, hands and towels.
At communion, we poured dixie cups for each other and broke matzo crackers and gave them to each other. Slowly pitchers went around the table, pour and blessing each other. When it was over and all had been washed and fed, I opened up for a time of witness. Again the words from each other to each other were tender and poignant. All I could say was "Amen."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bob died in Holy Week

The call in Saturday morning, just as I was finishing up the final draft for Palm Sunday's sermon. The caller asked for a former pastor. I gave him the number and went back to work. In about an hour, the phone rang again, it was a woman. She explained that the former pastor was unavailable and could I help. "With what?" I asked. She told me her husband just died that morning and they had no other church contact...could I help them? What could I say?
They came in within the hour full of eloquent and raw grief. Bob died after a long bout with cancer. He was a hero's hero, a man's man.

Bob was a long-haul 747 United pilot of many years. He was at the peak of his seniority on Sept 11. He saw it all. So we planned a memorial to Bob. Incovenient time for me? Yeah. But talk about a wonderful reminder of what Holy Week is all about....there is hope.
Between staff meetings and email about room decorations and set-ups, purchasing of supplies and all the myriad of details that choke the life out of church staff during Holy Week, Bob's funeral set me back on track. His family's gift of allowing me in reminded me to be about important things....not the mosquitoes!
Grace and Peace to the memory of Bob, God's friend.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Naked Companies...Naked Churches?

The magazine has a filmy overlay cover of the receptionist on "The Office" and when you flip it open, there she is covered with post-it notes, as if she is naked underneath. What magazine am I getting? Wired. No, it has not done one of those sleazy shifts like "Esquire" into soft-soft porn. But the pink cover and the word "Naked" does get attention. The Article inside is an across-the-bow call for total transparency from CEO's to the world.
The Wired article sites the case of Southwest Airlines recent faux paux when a grossly overweight man was charged for two seats, humiliating him as he was flying for medical treatment for the condition that caused his weight problems. The CEO of Southwest got in front of the issue on his own blog and apologized personally to the man and others who are overweight. He spoke of how the entire corporation is going to learn from this experience and pledged a new attitude to those with weight issues. He did not hide behind corporate PR or the legal team.
The Wired article states that organizational transparency is a new reality that leading organizations must embrace or die. Google, the author said, is not so much a search engine as it is a "reputation engine". It ruthlessly lists all mistakes and hunts down all lies and cover-ups. It's not so much about legitimate secrets being found out as about lies being exposed.
As I read the article I began to wonder about the church, my local church, the regional conference and the denominational headquarters in Chicago. How committed are we to transparency, even talking opening about our mistakes and learning curves? I recently looked up "lifechurchtv.org" in Oklahoma. They post their budget and all their information for the whole world to see. That is attractive.
Why do none of our denominational leaders have blogs of their own? What would happen if President Palmberg would regularly reflect what he sees in a blog? How about Church Growth and Evangelism or World Mission? I know I sound like a crank. I know the excuse of "I'm too busy" or "I'm just not into blogging" or "That's something I have others do for me." Take a look at the article. It's time for the Covenant to get naked!

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