Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Marks of the Church: I'll be Apostolic for Christmas

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas everybody! As the carols play, the shopping intensifies, and the stockings are hung by the AC Unit with care, it's easy to forget what it is we're doing all this for. Santa gets more “air time” than Jesus these days. And it calls us back to the need for a good witness this holiday season, in reminding people of this Baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

Of one of the many familiar sounds during this season is the carol, “Deck the Halls”

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

They require some translating for modern ears, though they are as popular as ever. Some words (gay, troll) have changed meaning since the song was written, others have almost disappeared entirely (when did you last wish someone happy Yuletide?). And so although many folks know the song, they sing it without delving into it's meaning.

Many aspects of Christmas end up becoming like this song...familiar, but without their original meaning. Even Santa Clause was once Saint Nicholas, and a model of Christian giving. But now, he more represents the fulfillment of our wishes for possessions. We managed to get our message into the culture, but in the process of things, it got garbled a little bit.

As we've been talking about the historic marks of the church over the past few months, Apostolic is the last on our list, following One, Holy, and Universal. It has a few different meanings historically. The Apostles were original disciples of Jesus who were the first to spread the message of salvation (and the term later became more broadly applied, as Paul and others took on similar roles in the church). The origin of the word is literally “Sent Ones,” those who have been sent to spread Christ's word. Alternately, those of you with some Catholic in your background may recognize the term Apostolic Succession, which implies that the leadership of the church (in one form or another) is tied back to those original disciples, with the implication that the faith is consistent down the ages. One is directly tied to reaching out, the other tied to heritage and preservation. And ironically enough, these two meanings embody one of the most ancient conflicts in the church...the nature of mission.

The question is do we communicate a timeless yet ancient message to ever changing cultures? How much do we change in order to make it intelligible, and how much should be kept iron clad? Over the centuries, we have often battled back and forth with these two. At times, we have used the ways of the culture (Christmas is a great example of this, as are Catholic saints and Christian television) to try and communicate the message. Sometimes, we go to far, and water-down the Gospel in an attempt to win listeners. On the other hand, while we make great effort to protect the simple truths of the faith, sometimes we get so caught up in the ancient that we forget people don't know words like “Hark” anymore. We make an make a particular worship style or Bible translation the gold standard of our faith, regardless of whether modern ears can understand it. At worst, we get focused on preserving the institution, in a desire to pass down the ancient faith, but in the process turn inward and forget to share it with others.

Either extreme is dangerous. At one end, you loose the message, at the other, the potential recipients. But if God's Word really is inspired by Him, then no matter how ancient it is, it bears relevance to modern life, even if the language needs updated now and again. It is important for us to remember, especially at this time of year, to keep these two meanings of Apostolic in a precious balance...we must not neglect God's truth, but we must also make it intelligible to our community.

And one of the best ways to do that, my friends, is to live it in love. Because love transcends language barriers, and is hungered for in every culture. If you love others, you'll want to share the Message you know they need, but in a way that they can hear. If your truest purpose is to share God's love with others...not preservation or being accepted...then you will find the balance. And if there's anything that people need this Christmas...with a crazy economy and the stress of the holidays, it's someone to love them unconditionally.

Where we are not reaching out, and are only about ourselves, we fail to be the church. But where we are also not protecting the integrity of the message, teaching it, nurturing folks with it, learning how to dig into it and live it out, we also fail. We are not called to reach the lost with pop-psych, nor to protect the word just for us. We are called to reach out in love, offering the healing message of Jesus Christ. And that's a gift that never goes out of season.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

Jesus was once offered a chance to take a stand on an issue of sexual immorality.

It was a rather cut and dry one too: adultery Since the beginning of the Jewish faith, the sinful nature of adultery had never been ambiguous. You don't do it, and when you do, there are clear punishments. And they had caught this women in the act. No gray areas there. Never did the Pharisees pitch the ball so clearly up the middle as they did here. All Jesus had to do was swing.

But He did something shocking. At first, He said nothing.

...which, frankly, could not have irritated the Pharisees more. It only seemed to confirm to them that he was simply a rabble-rouser. That He would do anything to undermine their authority with the people.

So they pressed again. Mind you, the woman is standing right there. And the punishment at this time, if you haven't read the story, is death by stoning. There are better ways to go.

Annoyingly, Jesus' silence continued. Instead, He was doing something in the dirt with his finger. I would give good money to know what it was He was drawing or writing. Many have theorized. But apparently the gospel writer didn't think it important. Or maybe he couldn't see what it was either.

In any case, Jesus finally pauses. All of the Pharisees heft their rocks, ready to stone either Him or the women pending His answer. But He hits them in the gut instead...

“If any of you hasn't sinned, go ahead and throw your rock.”

...and He goes back to His sand.

Amazingly, one by one, starting with the oldest (who apparently had the most regrets) and ending with the youngest (who hadn't accumulated as much sin...yet...), they dropped their rocks and left. Only the woman and Jesus remained.

Jesus, Master of the Rhetorical Question, asks her, “Didn't anybody stick around to condemn you?”

Her response is obvious. His is not. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go home...but leave your sinful lifestyle behind.”

DOH! If the pharisees had just rounded the corner and listened, they would have heard it...He didn't shy away from the issue! He didn't want that life for her. He was just as certain as they were that it was against God's plan for her. But His approach was different than theirs. He first earned her trust. He saved her life. Rescued her from the consequences of her actions. But then, having gained her trust, He showed her the full depth of His love. He pointed her to a better way. He was not ambiguous on the nature of her actions.

Many centuries before, His Father had done the same for Israel. He saved them from Egypt, rescued them from bondage and slavery. And only then, after showing His love to them, did He invite them into covenant relationship, and give them His commandments. Likewise, Christ's love does not leave someone in bondage to sin. But it does rescue them, give them an opportunity to be set free from it, in a loving, grace-filled manner.

Scripture is clear about what God considers sin. Earlier in His ministry, in the right context, Jesus had spoken about adultery. He even challenged people to take it to the next level, weeding unfaithfulness out of their minds and hearts, as well as their actions. But in this passage, Jesus saw a better way to handle things. The conviction that God has laid on my heart, both personally and for this congregation, is to live out the full love of God in all situations. Not omitting our conviction of sin, but seeing God's heart for those who are caught up in sin, and offering His love to them.

When we are willing to love first, God is better able to use us in ministry. Sin of any kind is difficult to overcome. And all of us need someone who can come alongside us to both encourage and challenge us to live a life of holiness. It's easy to say “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It's another thing to live it out, inviting fellow sinners into loving relationships, and walking with them on the path to righteousness.

Jesus neither came down hard on this woman, nor ignored the presence of sin in her life. His answer to her was more beautiful than music, more profound than art. “Neither do I condemn you,” AND “Leave your life of sin.” I may spend the rest of my life trying to understand how He did that. I have yet to perfect my heart in this matter, and I don't expect you to master it tomorrow either. But I believe the journey into Christ's love will be a worthy pursuit for us both. Will you travel it with me?

Father God, give us your heart for the sinner, for the broken, for the lost. You have rescued us from our failures, and drawn us into a loving community. Help us to do the same for others. Let our zeal for Your holiness always be tempered with Your Grace, and vice versa. For You are both Just and Loving, as you showed us in Your Son Jesus. Mold us in the image of His love. Through His Name we pray, amen.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I'm a, I'm a, I'm a Mac...

This is outside the normal purview of this blog, but it struck me the other night, and I just had to say it...

I listen to several of the TWiT podcasts in my free time, or when I'm doing more mindless tasks, and there's been a whole lot of bandwidth spent lately on figuring out Microsoft's latest ad campaigns. Starting this all has been the Seinfeld campaign (1 & 2), which may or may not have been dropped after 2 commercials (and Jerry's contract canceled), and then the more recent "I'm a PC" jab at Apple's wildly successful ad campaign.

Could it be that MS is floundering in the Marketing department, the once Achilles Heel of Apple? (This being said by the former owner of a MacTV, an OS8 machine with a built-in TV tuner, which I bought on clearance because they only marketed it to campus bookstores.)

Actually, I've got a great theory...and it involves the single interpretive key needed to make sense of the two Seinfeld commercials, which at first glace appear to be "a commercial about nothing." The key is this...Jerry is Apple. Why else would they hire a guy who, in his own series, always had a Mac on his desk? Plus, you needed a hip and funny guy to off-set Gates, in the same way Mac and PC play off each other in the Apple ads.

Now it's an interpretive leap, perhaps, but stay with me here...MS is symbolically saying in these commercials that Apple over the years has had some very inventive ideas. While MS ignored them at first ("Churro?" "I'm good."), they're starting to understand now (both seen eating churros at the end of the 1st ad). Some ideas were really out there (showering in your clothes), but some made a lot of sense (breaking in the leather shoes by repeated bending). Even the way in which Apple has learned from it's customers, (the second ad)and given them products that are all about user experience, MS is saying they've learned from that as well.

And so, MS has learned a thing or two from Apple, and has a few innovations of it's own in the works as well (the repetition of Jerry's ending question in both ads about what Bill's got in the works).

And no sooner do they pull these ads, than they prove my point...The newest ad campaign takes Apple's "I'm a Mac" ads and spins them, attempting to prove that not all PC users look and sound like John Hodgeman (himself an avid Mac user, ironically). And the real irony is, the commercial was most likely made on a Mac. More evidence to back up my otherwise seemingly outlandish theory.

So expect some new stuff, which will probably be code-named "churro", to be coming out any time soon. Maybe it's Windows 7X, maybe a zPhone (with built in water gun), maybe it's just another ad campaign which will be airing soon, talking about how all Mac users are slacker artists, while the real producers in our society are slogging away on PCs like any good American. Maybe it really is edible desktops and ready-to-make pet websites out of the box. I dunno, but it's good enough to make Bill Gates shake his shorts. :-)

This post, being typed by an avid Mac exile on an HP laptop running Mojave...I mean Vista.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What is the Church...Catholic???

This month, we pick back up with our discussion of the marks of the, holy, catholic, and apostolic. So what does it mean to be catholic? Ever wonder why we say that in the Apostles' Creed? Why we claim to be “one holy catholic” church? Well, for starters, the word means something beyond Roman Catholic. The word catholic actually means “universal,” such that when we claim to belong to a catholic church, we are saying that we belong to something larger than Methodism...we belong to a world-wide movement. One that is bigger than our denominations. Even when we divide, we are called to be Universal.

When colonial missionaries went out to the New World, they often brought with them more than Christianity. Many of them mistakenly thought that in order to convert the “savages” (who were a LOT more sophisticated than the Europeans realized), they needed to give them European culture, values, and language, in order for them to understand Christianity. They had confused the culture with the faith. They had forgotten the lesson of long ago, when men like Peter and Paul told their ancestors that you didn't have to become Jewish first to become a Christian. Because, as Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Christianity, from the word go, was something beyond your culture. It applied to and united all people exactly where they were at, no need to become something else first.

The universality of the church means it overflows the cultural boundaries we want to put it in, and finds expression in a variety of contexts. Contrary to what some of those missionaries thought, Christianity is not contained by western culture. It is not contained within any era of human history, pre-modern, medieval, modern, or post-modern, but has expressed itself somewhat differently in each time. It defies definitions of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, time, language, territory, political party, and technology. It has spread by word of mouth, pictures, ritual, print media, and now electronic means. It does not fit nicely into our neat boxes.

Now of course, there are some things that are rock-solid, as we talked about near the end of August. The humanity, divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ are what define us, what unite us in our universal diversity. In the absence of these things, I hesitate to say that what we are talking about is an expression of the Universal church. Because these are the things that, despite cultural and even doctrinal differences, bind us together in the Oneness that also is a mark of the church.

But having said that, the church takes on many different forms in it's universality. The gospel is spread in English, Spanish, Swahili, Navajo, and Korean. It finds expression in the unique musical stylings of each culture. Preachers from different cultures speak in different rhythms. Different bread is used for the same Lord's Supper (and indeed, different drink as well). But all express the One True Savior, in their own individual ways.

We are linked to people very different than us, who dress different, talk with a different accent, or in a different language, whose families function different, whose ways of understanding and testing the Truth of something may vary from ours. We are united in a common of of a savior. I love that the youth in our church have begun to build bridges with other churches in the area. I love that the pastor from the CMA church down the road has been known to fill-in here. I love it whenever I see boundaries overcome in the name of Christ. For in Christ, there is neither black nor white, Hispanic nor Asian, Baptist nor Methodist, Pentecostal nor Roman Catholic, rich nor poor nor middle class, male nor female, Republican nor Democrat. Christianity finds a home in all of these diverse peoples, and those differences remind us that Christ makes us all one. Let's look for ways to express that as we move forward in ministry in our communities, celebrating the wonderful, cross-cultural universality of our common faith.

Friday, August 08, 2008

What is the Church? Holy...

We started last month talking about the Marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. This month, let's talk about what holy means. Holiness is usually talked about in terms of how good or bad someone is. Someone is thought of as holy if they do good things, avoid bad, etc.

But this is not a Biblical definition of holy. The first time the word shows up, it's in regard to the Sabbath, a day set apart for rest, in Genesis 2:3. In Exodus 30:32, it refers to a special anointing oil that is not to be used for any ordinary purposes. And elsewhere in Exodus, it refers to places and furnishings in the Temple which are apart from ordinary use. Leviticus 10:10 finally defines it for us, when God says to Moses, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” (ESV) Holiness in Scripture is defined by being different than the ordinary, being set apart from the common for God. Goodness does play a role in holiness, but goodness is in the service of being set apart to God, not the other way around. Especially when the word is so often used to refer to inanimate objects, it's not just about the presence of lack of sin.

But when God sets things apart, He does so for a purpose. Take the Levities. God sets them apart from Israel, but to serve Israel as it's spiritual leaders. And when Abraham's descendants were set apart, God said they would be a blessing to the nations. (Gen 12:3) Even the Temple furnishings I mentioned before, they weren't just set apart to look pretty, but to serve as a sign and witness to the people.

We just got back from the Celebrate Jesus mission trip, where in essence the 8 of us were set-apart for a purpose. We did not live like the rest of the world. For starters, we were sleeping in a church. And not during the sermon... :-) And we were doing other things that made us different than other people. We were going door-to-door, and standing outside stores, giving people something free, whether it be a gift, or an initiation, or a prayer. Who does that? Most folks didn't know what to do with us...they're used to stuff like that being followed by a catch, or a sales pitch. But instead, we just gave what we had away...even the party was free, and you didn't have to sit through a sermon to attend. We just wanted to show people God's kindness and love, which also comes with no strings attached.

Others participated while in the midst of normal life. But the teams were specifically set-apart to go out in ways the normal parishioners couldn't, or at times they couldn't, or with a single-mindedness they couldn't, because we had no worldly affairs to worry about for the week. We were set-apart from our normal lives to serve this single purpose.

This is the essence of holiness. Being set apart for a purpose. For service to God. For a mission. Holiness as a church is not total disengagement from the world, but rather separation from being identified with it, so that we can more closely identify with our heavenly Father. Remember, forward progress in holiness also means we are more like Him, which means there is also more of Him we can offer to the world. So that they can see that His love for them is different than other love, that His kindness is different than that amongst friends.

So who are we as the church? We are holy, called to be and do a little different than the world, so that they will know our God is not just one more hobby, not just one more story, but is Someone amazing and unique. Come, let us show the world together our Holy God.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Experience as Retreat

The experiential is a dimension of almost every renewal movement in Christian history. And likewise there is a natural counter-progression in our history:

Spirit-led=>Structure driven
Revelation (or reemphasis on previous revelation)=>Tradition
Equality in leadership roles=>Rigid roles and segregation

From time to time, we have to turn back, reexperience, renew, refresh. It's like a "retreat" for whole religious movements. Mountain-top experiences renew us, bring us into the presence of our Savior, call us to face our fears, our inadequacies, our priorities, so we can return to life in a new way. Many retreats climax at moments of spiritual "crisis," calling for one to make a decision and more forward in life a transformed creature. I find in my own life I need a healthy dose of these experiences to correct for spiritual drift in my own life.

But as with any mountain top experience, we can't stay there. Retreats and pilgrimages are but way stations on our journey, and then, having had the experience, we head back out, walking life's road until we start to dry-out, harden, calcify, and need out heart "strangely warmed" again.

I wonder if the Emerging Church Movement is a retreat for the global (or at least Western) church. For many churches and Christians are feeling dried out, drifting from their course, hardened and cold, and need the experience with Christ to restore their passion and heart. But then Emerging, like the mountain top, is a temporary experience. One which should change us, reset our course, renew our hearts, challenge our fears, inadequacies, failures, priorities. One which should re-introduce us to our Jesus, and call for a crisis, a decision point. Deconstruction is one such challenge, one that is often laid by reformers who see the current structure to be built with the wrong materials. Revisiting how God has worked in our collective past (a theme for many of my own personal retreats) is another. We can't stay on this mountain and pitch tents, as Peter wanted to. We have to come down, there are demon-possessed folks needing our help.

Retreat, return. Retreat, return. Whether Reformation or Great Awakening, we needed it in the past. Maybe God has provided yet another, if we are willing to journey with Him.

Monday, June 30, 2008

What is Church? One...

What does it really mean to be the church? What defines us, as a movement, as a body, as a people? Historically, four characteristics, known as the "Marks of the Church," have defined the life of the Body. As laid out in the Nicene Creed, (UM Hymnal #880), "We believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." (Emphasis mine) The church traditionally defined its faithfulness of its identity, and effectiveness in mission, by these benchmarks. Even during and after the Reformation, these traits were never questioned, by Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants. But what do they mean for Callahan? I'd like to take the next few months to look at each of these characteristics, and what they mean for us today.

First, the church is called to be One. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called-one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (vv 3-6) Out of all the characteristics of the church, this seems to be the most pertinent in our world today, as we are often divided by denomination, by skin tone, by ethnicity, by class, by worship style.

Yet the unity Paul is speaking of takes some interesting forms, it seems. In the very next breath, after calling for us to be united under one Lord, faith, and Baptism, Paul throws in a "however…" "However, he has given each one of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ." (v7, NLT) Then Paul goes on to describe a variety of gifts and roles in the church, each with their own unique place in this unified Body. And if we look at the variety of churches that have passed down the tradition of the church being "one," we see many different peoples, many different forms, many different languages, musical instruments (or lack thereof). Each expressing its faith in unique and creative ways, each still united as one. We are one church, but we are one in diversity.

So what's the secret? Paul tells us. "…Hold to the truth in love, becoming more and more in every way like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. Under His direction, the whole body is fitted perfectly together…" (vv 15-16a, NLT) As we focus on Christ, focus on becoming more like Him, and on reflecting His love to the world, He will bring us together as one. By focusing on styles, agendas, methods, our eyes are on ourselves. And if we are focused on ourselves, we'll only see each other's flaws. But if our focus, as individuals and as a body, is Christ, and on the mission He is calling us to, than we see only His holy love, and He will bring us together.

So how do we become one church? By acting in Christ-like love to one another, and to those outside these walls. By spending time with Christ, seeking His direction in all we do. By opening our hearts to His transforming Spirit, and letting Him make every part of us reflect His love. By laying aside our differences as things that divide us, and instead see them as divine gifts that can inform and enrich each other. Then, and only then, will we be one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Common Quest?

I've started reading a book called St Benedict on the Freeway this past week. Not sure what I think of it yet. It is intended to be a book on adapting the Benedictine pattern for life and prayer for 21st century people. An interesting read so far, but the author at one point began talking about how all religions seem to have a common goal, and includes in that the classic "all paths lead to God" illustration. I've yet to determine if this is the author's own viewpoint, or if there is some other point she is trying to make.

But it raises the question: Is there a common goal for all religions? In a sense, I would say yes, that all faiths are trying to fulfill the needs of the human soul. What are these needs? As best as I understand them, relationship with something/One beyond us, with the Divine if you will, and a way to deal with any distance between ourselves and that.

But the real question is, are all faiths able to provide a complete path to this goal? Yes, we're all trying to get to the same...or at least a, but do all roads really lead to Rome?

While our goals and methods may be similar, from Christian to Hindu to Muslim to Taoist, one thing I have learned is that no human effort can bridge that gap between us and the Divine. Which is why God 1st revealed Himself to the Jews, and then completed what work by bridging the gap (in Christian terms known as sin) in Jesus. Others may copy Christian methods, and we may borrow theres, but without Christ there is no possibility of bridging the gap or finding the Divine.

I don't think you can have a true Christianity without the atonement. Jesus was not just one more Rabbi. If He was, why is the Cross, according to the day a sign of His "defeat," the symbol for our faith? If we loose sight of the significance of the cross and the empty tomb, and what His death and resurrection did for us that no other could, then we are just adding one more religious text to the collected writings of humanity. Nice reading, but is we ignore the Cross, we might as well do our morning devotions with the Qur'an or the Upanishads.

Richard Niebhur once summed up this kind of faith in these terms: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

Many have used the illustration of multiple roads leading to the top of the same mountain to talk about religious "paths." And if we ignore the Cross, and what is distinctive about Christian faith and teaching, then we might come to that conclusion. But why would Jesus wrestle in the garden with His mission if there was an easier way?

The necessity of the Cross to His life tells us that humans aren't capable of reaching God without help. It's as if there is a lava filled canyon running through those mountain paths, one that is too wide for us to cross. Other faiths, and even some Cross-less versions of my own, try to jump the chasm, or perhaps even believe their quest is to fall into it. Christ says "I can make the jump with you on my back, if you're willing to leave your baggage behind and trust Me. You won't need that stuff, I've got better gear on the other side for the rest of the climb. Just trust me, and we'll go see Dad together."

All those who try to make the jump on their own, no matter how good their intentions or strong their legs, or pure their heart, will fall.

Yes, all religions probably have a common goal, one of seeking connection with the Divine. And maybe that's something we should celebrate at some level, rather than writing each other off as enemies. But all others are human attempts to jump the chasm, and no amount of cross-training can make us strong enough to succeed. Only a human savior could carry us like that, and only a divine savior could make the jump with all of us on His back.

The question is, will you continue the path on your own strength, your own wisdom, or trust in His? That choice s up to each of us. Will you accept?

Friday, April 25, 2008

A week off from preaching...

Well, with the youth leading worship this past Sunday, and my Wednesday night lessons already prepared, I had a chance to play catch-up last week. Keeping more than 3 things in my head at a time has never really worked for me, so I've had to do some investigating into organizational methods. I did the Palm Pilot thing for almost a decade, and did the Franklin Covey planner on and off alongside it. But those things were tools, not methods. And as a Methodist...well, I need methods! ;-)

It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I discovered the Getting Things Done (aka GTD) methodology, set out by David Allen in his book by the same name. The flow goes something like this:

  1. Collect-Get all of the thoughts out of your head, your email, your various post-its all around the office, and get them into one big bucket that you sort through on a consistent basis. For me, this entails use of my cell phone's voice recorder, and my handy-dandy Hipster PDA.
  2. Process-Ask some basic questions...Is this actionable or not? Is it a single action or a project? Is it for me or for someone else? Is it something I can do in 2 min right now, or do I need to do it later?
  3. Organize-Get them in the right files, on project or task lists, on your calendar, etc
  4. Review-Go over your calendar and lists, and make decisions about what to do this week, today.
  5. the thing!
I've heard-tell that Allen's spirituality is a little on the creepy side, but then again, so is that of my favorite chess guru, Jeremy Silman. So I don't get into a lot of his side stuff. I've actually found my best resource for applying GTD has not been Allen, but another guy (and a Floridian at that) named Merlin Mann. His site, 43 Folders, is good for both organization and technology. He's the guy to (tongue-in-cheek) popularized the Hipster PDA, which is a fancy term for a stack of index cards in a binder clip.

It's been a long learning curve for me, and I've changed the system 10 million times in the last year or so, but it's been beneficial for me. Of course, once I get a good system, then I have to deal with the worries and fears in me that make me want to procrastinate all the things in these wonderful lists.

But that's for another day. Hope this is helpful to somebody!

Why are we failing?

Just a short thought from the Episcopal address, taken from the UM News report:

"[Illinois Area Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher] attributed some of the membership decline in U.S. churches to 'ruptures in our United Methodist relationships. Left or right, conservative or liberal, we treat our baptized brothers and sisters as if they are our enemies' and seek to destroy those who have a different viewpoint or perspective, she said.

"'Our fervent pursuit of being right takes priority over right relationship,' she said. The disarray of the table, the fractured and ruptured United Methodist relationships, and 'carefully calculated formulas of theology' make church members unable to hear and listen to the cries of a neighbor. 'Our own need deafens us to the needs of others,' she said."

I don't think this is a disease contained only in our Methodist population. It seems to have infected most of Western (and maybe more) Christianity. Not the first time it's been said...but it needs to be repeated.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Approaching General Conference...

Maybe I'm a total Metho-nerd for this, but I am excited about the possibilities coming up with General Conference this year. As a probationary elder, I wasn't eligible, so all I can do is pray, and watch, and pray some more.

With all the changes going on in our society, with the rise of post-modernism and Emerging generations, it would be easy to run scarred, to throw up walls of "It has always been thus." Yet the history of Methodism in America has been one of adventure, moving with the people into new frontiers. Out of the safe colonial cities, and into the wild West. Is it not time to do the same today, to travel with the citizens of this New World, and give them the Gospel in a new, wild & untamed land?

What does that mean for us today? Maybe that's why we've taken to the Emerging Church Conversation so readily, because we were a pioneering group at our founding, and still have that latent heart within carry the Holy Word of God to new lands, new cultures, new and different generations, where other churches fear to go.

True Methodists don't say "Come to us, our doors are open." They say "The people are out there, on the frontier. We will go with them into the wild, bring God's love and transforming power to them."

So maybe it's time to saddle up that circuit riding horse, dust off our riding gear, and head out with the wagon trains. We don't have to be caught up in the lawlessness of the New West...maybe we can bring it some grace instead.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Dealing with disagreement

Col 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

I've picked some bad fights in my day. By and large, they have not been physical. But I tend to get drawn into arguments, particularly about theological and spiritual matters

These arguments usually end up falling into two camps: really bad, or really good. I seldom have an in-between experience. Either I feel like people are really listening and at least thinking about what I have to say, or I leave feeling verbally cut in two.

One of the really bad ones I got involved with because a church member (not here) recommended a website where he had been reading about all kinds of heresies in the church today. Upon checking out the website, I found that they spoke very negatively about teachers and authors that I had learned a great deal from. And many of the things they were saying were either false or gross exaggerations. In reading one of the articles, my blood started to boil, and I made my way to the comments line to defend one individual's beliefs and intentions. This turned into a rather long battle, across several different topics, by the end of which I had been compared to Satan for believing dialog was a useful tool for Christians, and having made no headway with anyone. I've tried to avoid the site ever since.

The only (so far) really good one started under similar circumstances. I was looking for discussion groups on theology, and found a group who again had a very different set of beliefs. Upon reading in the group, I found very similar problems...bad information and exaggerations. But this time, perhaps wary from previous failures, I took a different tack. I emailed the group's leader, and started asking questions, and offered to be a resources for better information, as I owned books from several of the authors they were concerned about. This began an email exchange, a new friendship, as we learned more about each other, and realized that though we have some big differences in some areas of belief, in others we were quite similar. When I did join in the discussion with the rest of the group, I had an ally in the group's leader, even when we disagreed. We tease each other as we discuss, and I have found several of the other members of the group to be very reasonable. We even took a break from debate to pray for one of the members who was going through a very hard time in life. Although there are still tense moments in our discussions, I get the feeling I am discussing amongst friends.

We all end up in disagreements now and again. Yours may differ from mine in terms of content. They may be about beliefs, or about treatment of others, or about wrongs done to one another, or ways to run an organization. But I bet we've had some similar experiences none the less. You've had some times where you had a disagreement with someone that left you feeling raw and beaten down. You've left a conversation you thought you were having with friends unsure of the future of the relationship.

So how do you end up having a good conversation? Some of the differences come in how the other party handles the disagreement. That, sadly, you cannot control. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, they will react in a hurtful way towards you.

But there are some things you can do, to try and handle the situation the best you can:

  1. Ask yourself...”Is this needed? Will someone benefit from this conversation?”

  2. Gage your audience. Will this person be receptive to what you have to say?

  3. Resist the urge to flinch. Take the time to thoughtfully respond to what is said, rather than reacting. This can make a world of difference.

  4. Really listen to what the other person has to say. They may have had experiences that give them a totally different view-point on the situation.

  5. Respect the personhood of the other party, even if they don't respect yours. They too are God's Creation, whether they realize it or not. Treat them how you would want to be treated.

  6. Give and take. Be willing to admit when the other person has a point.

  7. Know when to bail out. Sometimes a conversation ceases to be fruitful. Know when it's time to stop, even if just to step-back and breathe.

Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be a bad experience. It can be an opportunity to grow, to be challenged, even to build stronger relationships. May the conflicts that come your way be the good ones!

Answering the Whispers

"What was that?" Sammy rolled over in his bed. It was the whispers again, same as the night before, and the ones before that. He wrestled with the thought of tip-toeing across the hall again, to wake his folks, to get some comfort. The whispers didn't scare him so much. They seemed to be kind. Gentle. Like they were coming from his mom or dad, but they had decidedly ruled that out a week ago, when he had first awoken them under similar circumstances. After the first few nights of this, his parents had wearily asked him to stop waking them up in the middle of the night. They didn't believe him, he was sure of it. He though he heard them whispering about special doctors they might take him to, to cure his "en-som-ne-ya," whatever that was. So he just stopped saying anything. He rolled onto his stomach, and tried to fall back asleep.

It was only an hour later when the whispers came back. He though this time about yelling back. Why wouldn't they let him sleep? But what would he say? Please go away, crazy whispers? Yeah, right. His parents already thought he needed a doctor. What if they heard him? No, there had to be something he could do. Then a vague memory fluttered into his imagination. A Sunday school flannel-board story, with a little boy named Sam, just like him. He heard whispers at night too! It was way, way back when he had heard that story. Almost a whole grade ago!! But he could still hear Miss Keenan's voice, as clear as if she was there. "Then Eli realized it was the LORD who was calling the boy. So he said to Samuel, "Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, `Yes, LORD, your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went back to bed." Sammy flopped onto his back. Well, it couldn't hurt! And something deep inside of him cried out to give it a try. The whispers began again. In a timid little voice, he whispered back "Yes, Lord, your servant is listening."

For the first time, in the midst of the whispers, Sammy clearly heard his own name...


God calls to us in a lot of different ways. When He does...will you listen?

1 Samuel 3:1-10

What is Lent anyway?

I was in a Christian bookstore the other day, purchasing some oil to mix with the ashes for Ash Wednesday. As I struck up a conversation with the clerk, and explained my purpose, she confessed that she had no clue what Lent was, since her church never practiced that. I kind of take it for granted, having been raised as a very traditional Methodist, that people understand our various traditions, and it's always good for me to be reminded not everyone has had the same experiences.

So what is Lent anyway? To most folks, the practice begins and ends with giving up something for 40 days that you feel like you either like too much or need to have out of your life. Many people who do practice Lent do so out of habit as much as anything else, and give up chocolate (the eternal favorite), television, video games, caffeine (ouch), or some other thing out of a sense of obligation. It is interesting, when we look at Lent just as giving up something, how our attitudes sour. It is no surprise that Ash Wednesday is preceded by Fat Tuesday in some cultures (Mardi Gras), with people packing in all their indulgence they are going to miss into one day, before the 40 days of misery begin.

But what is the point of giving all this stuff up anyway? While emptying oneself is a critical component of many of the worlds' religions, in Christianity it takes on a deeper purpose. When we give up one thing, it is to make room for another. When we empty ourselves, it is with the point of filling that space with Christ. Fasting of any form, without something to fill in the gap, is an exercise in utter misery. But when you give up a meal to pray, or to give the money you would have spent to the homeless, or to commit to God that His priorities are more important than even the hunger of the stomach, then your sacrifice has purpose, meaning. When you turn off the TV to make time for prayer, or Scripture study, then it takes on new life. It isn't just's opportunity to find a deeper walk with Christ. Even if what you give up doesn't take any time, it should have a purpose.

So if you give up something for Lent this year, put something in it's place too. Don't just make yourself miserable...take an opportunity to draw closer to Christ instead.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Happy New Year!

Is anybody else having trouble believing 2007 is gone? There's really should be laws against Father Time speeding like this. It's amazing to think of all that has happened in this last year. This time 365 days ago, I was in an entirely different state, with very different responsibilities, and slightly whiter weather. So much has changed, so much has happened. I'm sure each of you feels the same for your own reasons.

New Years' usually becomes a very self-reflective time for me, evaluating the victories and failings of the previous year, and making plans for the next. And yes, New Years' resolutions of various kinds. At some point towards the end of the year, I was looking at areas of my life I wanted to improve in. The mistakes I had made weighed on me, and I found myself wanting to just shut-down the rest of the year, and get a fresh start in 2008. It's silly, I know, but I was overwhelmed with how many ways I had messed-up in the year behind. Expectations of myself I had not lived up to. And it truly grieved me.

The prophet Jeremiah once faced things which gave him similar grief. Especially as he saw how the Lord had disciplined him for his own sins and faults, felt a heavy weight upon him. His inner turmoil is recorded in Lamentations 3. Look especially at verses 20-23, and how things turn around for him.

My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Christian singer Carolyn Arends put it this way:

I buy a lot of diaries
Fill them full of good intentions
Each and every New Year's Eve
I make myself a list
All the things I'm gonna change
Until January 2nd
So this time I'm making one promise
This will be my resolution
Every day is New Year's Day

With God, every new morning is a new chance to make things right. When we look a thoughts of long-term change, it can be very scary. Yet when we look at each day as a new chance to follow God, to overcome temptation, to make a difference in the lives of others, to love everyone around us with an amazing self-sacrificing love, it becomes a little more manageable. We will mess-up from time to time. But if you are willing to repent and ask forgiveness, each day with God can be a fresh start.

The year of our Lord 2008 is rife with possibilities. You get 366 new mornings this year (one more than last year!). 366 new days to wake up and say “Today, I will live my utmost for God.” 366 new days to get it right. 366 new days to loose weight, or call your parents more, or spend more time with your kids, or write that novel, or blog consistently ; ), or to give your all to God. How are you going to use this next morning? And the next one? Enjoy the opportunities. They are God's present to you.

Happy New Years!