Starting Again

Another year, another… new 2014

What?

Got plans?  Resolutions?  Regrets?  Wishes? Hope? Dreams? Fears?

What will change 2014 for you?  What is it about a new year, a new calendar, a new January that gives us hope or commitment to change, grow, etc.?

Eliza, my daughter who will turn 4 this year, woke up the morning of December 26th suggesting we have Christmas again.  In fact, if the world worked on Eliza’s terms, every day would be Christmas Day.

Which reminded me of a line in a song (as so much of life does):  “Every morning is Easter morning from now on!”

I shared this lyric with Eliza and suggested Easter is an even better day to celebrate everyday than Christmas.  (She is yet unimpressed with most of the theological points I make, but I will not give up!)

What Eliza helped me realize is that each day is important and valuable and worth living.  Each day is a day full of opportunity for renewal, restart, resolve.  Eliza helped me remember again and from a different angle something Jesus said a long time ago: “stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

Do you know what you think?

At Euless First UMC we have been on a Long and Winding Road since late August. This has been my sermon series, but it has also been an effort to get people to share their stories with one another.

I contend that coming to terms with one’s own faith story is the best exercise for sharing one’s faith.  Sure, being able to argue someone under the table may convince them you are right (or at least that you are a better arguer).  Being able to recite theories, scriptures, or proofs of God’s existence may also win attention. But unless and until your life offers something deep, lasting, and real about the God you claim to worship and follow, I’m afraid those around you are left with words and ideas, but not life.

On the way to thinking through one’s faith story, I have suggested 4 different forms:

  1. Your Story in 6 words: modeled after that famous short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
  2. Tweet version: Your Story in 140 characters (or less)
  3. Elevator Pitch: something you can say in 30-45 seconds that leaves the listener wanting to know more, and
  4. Long Form – 300-500 words:  (I know some don’t consider this long) Your Story in a page or two.

I have completed mine, and will be sharing them here over the next few days.

But before we get there, I had this thought as I sat down to begin to share these different versions of my story: until I thought about my life in an intentional way, it wasn’t really a story, but just rambling thoughts.

Which led me to the heading of this post: Do you know what you think? Whether it is your story or a football game you watched over the weekend; whether you tell your story in the context of God’s larger story or not, until you stop and consider what it is you think, you don’t really know.

It might seem obvious that one knows what one thinks – in general, or about any specific topic – until one can communicate it somehow to another person, I am not sure that he or she really does know what he or she thinks.

Do you know what you think?  Could you tell me in a way that I understand?

Fear of Neither Future nor Past

Someone shared this with me in an email titled: Church Services of the Future. (It can also be found at places other than FreeRepublic.com.  Slide1I believe the idea behind the email (I was among a  good number of recipients) was to engender discussion of the ways technology is, or seems to be, or threatens to be, infringing on worship.

My first thought was that this was posted by a traditionalist, strongly opposed to any technology in worship.

Of, by that I mean (or the traditionalist means) opposition to any recent technology in worship.  I assume, anyway, that there is not widespread opposition to the use of electricity – whether it be in the lights or sound system.

(I don’t know if distribution of cassette tapes of sermons is more acceptable than downloading digital copies.  Find a traditionalist and ask.)

FYI, I am not, at least in the technological sense, a traditionalist.

Neither am I one who insists that proper, relevant worship of God must be on the cutting edge of technology.

So here is my response to the email discussion of this alleged “Church Service of the Future”: I do not believe worship (at least Christian worship) should be about technology.  By this I mean Christian worship is about Christ and not, specifically and clear NOT about either

  • the use of the latest technology

or

  • the avoidance of technology.

God has no more (and no less) issue with your being distracted from worship by your smart phone than by worrying what that other person is looking at on her smartphone.

When I was a youth, we sometimes passed notes to one another during the sermon. Offering envelopes served well for this.  When caught, we were admonished that we should be paying attention.

I don’t remember whether or not the notes were ever related to what the preacher was saying or not.

I know people who taking notes on their phones or tablet computers during sermons.

Is writing notes on by hand more worshipful than writing them electronically?  Not a chance.

Worship is about worship – worship of God. It is not about technology – whether that means for technology, or against it.

Flexibility

“It’s like Mission Control down here.”Apollo13MissionControl1

So said someone just walking into the meeting room in our office building.  “Mission Control” takes me back to childhood and watching the moon landings.

I was told recently that today’s typical low-cost digital wristwatch contains more computing power than all of the computers that took the Apollo vessels (successfully) to the moon and back.

The ‘Mission Control’ in our meeting room is a collection of our Food Pantry volunteers learning the new computerized system that Tarrant Area Food Bank has brought on board.

Most of our Food Pantry volunteers have not spent most of their years in the computer age.  I think it is fair to say that some of them have very little familiarity with computers beyond email.

Instead of lamenting some other generation’s resistance to technology, I want to applaud the willingness of these volunteers to step out of their comfort zones.  For some of them, this is WAY out of their comfort zones.

I enjoy technology.  I realize I am not on the cutting edge, but I am closer to being an early adopter than a laggard.  Today I am challenged to be aware of other areas of life that I may be less flexible.

As I identify them, I hope I can learn something from the flexibility of our Food Pantry volunteers.  Thank you for teaching me something today!

Is Your Church as Good as a Dollar Store?

I made a quick stop in a Family Dollar store on my way to work this morning. I have had a hard time finding things in dollar stores in the past, so I asked the first employee I saw for help.

She told me they didn’t have what I was looking for, but that I should try the Dollar General across the street. For a second I thought I was on Miracle on 34th Street.  I thanked her and moved on.

Sure enough, the Dollar General had what I was looking for (maybe Bono should try there). I told the clerk at Dollar General who helped me find it the story of Family Dollar referring me over there.  She replied that they do this for each other.

I walked to my car thinking what a good business practice that was; that I would gladly stop at either of these stores again.  I might, in fact, pass up some other store to bring my business to one of these.

Then God, I believe, invited me to consider the implications for my own line of work.

Would I be willing to recommend another church to someone who couldn’t find what they were looking for at mine?

Would you?

Extreme Life?

Felix Baumgartner is attempting to set a new free-fall world record today over Roswell.  He is doing this as a promotional stunt sponsored by Red Bull.

Marketplace‘s slant on this story begins with pointing out that many likely sponsors would avoid such a stunt like the plague, but it fits well with the image Red Bull seeking to maintain.

We are more than a decade into “the extreme.”  The “X Games” launched in 1995.  The Goo-Goo Dolls released Iris in 1998, which includes these lyrics that I’ve always been hesitant to cite while preaching:

yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive

The desire, the strongly felt need, to feel something in the midst of perceived numbness is far older than this, though

We learn to build walls to protect ourselves from hurt.  Sadly, these walls can easily become so thick and so tall they shield us from feelings altogether.

I remember watching The Color Purple while a seminary student.  One scene that was designed to evoke emotion did so, and I began to cry.  I cried for 3 hours.  It may have been 4; that was more than 20 years ago now, and I find it hard to remember exactly how long that lasted.

What I remember as though it were yesterday, is the progression my tears took me through.  I had sworn off crying as a junior high student, and, now 23 or so, I revisited each episode of my life that had called for tears.  The loss of 3 grandparents.  Moving as I was going into high school. Leaving home for college.  Going out of state for seminary. Several failed relationships.

We have become people who want to feel only on our own terms.  Thus, we have developed industries around providing opportunities and experiences within which we can “feel” to make up for lives we have crafted to become devoid of feeling.

On the other hand, Jesus said in John 10 that he has come to give us “life to the full,” or “life abundantly,” or, I think, “extreme life.”  What Jesus offers, though, is not controlled opportunities and experiences where we feel to make make up for all of the numbness we have built for ourselves.  Rather, what I have come to understand that Jesus offers us is the ability to live into a life that can accept the reality of feeling as it comes.

This extreme life that Jesus offers does not look as extreme as a 22 mile free-fall.  But it doesn’t require cutting oneself to know one is alive, either.  The extreme life Jesus offers is the ability to live all the time.

Are you ready for that kind of extreme?

Is First always first?

I pastor the First United Methodist Church of Euless.  In United Methodist circles, this could be shortened to “First Euless.”

In Euless, though, “First Euless” is short for the First Baptist Church of Euless.

Nothing against the Baptist church in general or that one in particular, but I don’t want to be confused with them, or inadvertently steer people their way (when intending to steer them toward my own congregation).

This shortening is probably mostly a branding thing – shortened terms used to identify a specific place or thing.  I get that.  The additional benefit is the implicit positive connotations of the word “first.”  It means – or suggests, perhaps – a prominence and superiority of quality.

Who, after all, doesn’t want to be first?  I hate waiting in line, especially a long line.  I’d like to be first.

So, now, enter Jesus.  Trouble-making clever Jesus. In Matthew 20, Jesus responds to this desire to be first, best, on top, with the famous “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” (CEB)

So now I am thinking about suggesting we change the name of our church to “Last United Methodist Church of Euless.”

What do you think?

When are we going to get there?

I heard this clip on the radio yesterday:  “My father’s generation thought science was going to solve all the problems of the world.”

This is, in all honesty, a more mature sounding version of “When are we going to get there?” that we all used to utter as quickly as a family road trip started.

It is reasonable to have expected science to solve all the problems.  Let’s face it; science has made a lot of promises over the years.

“Wait!” say those of you who are actually scientists, or who understand science more deeply than that.  You might have me clarify that people have made grand promises of what science would accomplish.  People, not science, have promised that science would solve all our problems.

I feel your pain.

We still hear similar generalizations in the name of God/Religion/Jesus/etc.  At the same time, we hear plenty of statements like “Religion has killed millions of people, or “More people are killed in the name of God than for any other reason.”  (Is Science  blamed for giving us the atomic bomb and thus for the deaths they brought?)

Welcome, science, to the realm of religion.  Or, more to the point, to the realm of the state of humanity that sits passively by, hoping for, waiting for, proclaiming this or that, a savior.

It turns out ‘we’ want the same thing from science that ‘we’ want from religion – something or someone outside ourselves to do all the work.

Neither science nor religion can work this way.

Science can tell you not to eat processed, fatty foods and not to water your lawn in the heat of the day and many other things.  Science cannot (yet) keep you from doing those things, or make you do other things.  Should it.

Neither can (or will) God make you do the things Jesus teaches us will bring salvation to the world. We must actually begin to follow Jesus if we want to see the salvation he offers to us, and through us to the world.

When are we going to get there?  Sometime after we start moving in the right direction.

Video Games, Your Conscience and the church

I used to play GTA3.  It’s been a long time, but I have played it.  In fact, it has been quite some time since I played any video games.  (At what age do you think Eliza, now almost 2, or Liam, due in April, will be interested in enticing Dad to play video games with them?)

A couple weeks go I was talking with one of our youth here and the Grand Theft Auto game series came up.  He assumed I knew what these games were but that I had never played them.

“Because a pastor wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, play those kinds of games,” he said.

I asked him why he said this, and he explained all the violence in the games.  I asked him why it was ok for him to play them but not for me.

He didn’t have an answer.

I thought perhaps we might get to the point in the discussion that he would differentiate between the simulated violence in video games and actual violence in the real world, but he didn’t.  He was, honestly, more concerned for my soul and thus for protecting me from the violence of video games.

I steered the discussion in this direction: I asked him to help me understand this set of premises

  1. you like playing violent video games
  2. you think they (violent video games) are bad, and
  3. you feel no guilt about playing them.

We have not reached any resolution on this discussion, but we have left it open.  We will take it up again.

Not very far into our discussion of this topic, I was struck by the idea that I have likely played the same mental gymnastics with things other than video games.  My conscince is no more naturally inclined to consistency than his is.

In case anyone reading this is on board with a wholesale critique of video games or some other technology or adolescent related issue, let me make this clear: we all (or at least most of us) have issues, behaviors, beliefs that we would not recommend to others – that we would fight to keep others from taking on, perhaps – that we have no intention of giving up ourselves.  In some cases, we do not even feel guilt for doing or saying or thinking these things.

In other words, video games are not the issue. Conscience is the issue.

I believe more and more that in some cases conscience directs our behaviors but not always.  Sometimes our conscience is directed, even formed, by behaviors we must choose against what feels innate.

To have the strength to do this, must of us need help.  We need, and deserve, the help of a community with which we share a mutal intent to live better, to be better people.

I call this community church.   Not Church, but church.

Do all United Methodists have a dark side?

Though it was posted November 11, I just ran across this piece from the United Methodist Reporter.  Jerry Sandusky is a United Methodist.  According to this ESPN piece, Not only was Sandusky recognized by the U.S. Congress for his volunteer work, but he is also an active U.M. layman.

The article talks about how Sandusky blindsided so many imporant, influential people with his now-alleged “sickness.”  I suppose blindsided is a good word for ESPN to use as it references that great feel-good movie of a couple years ago. The  Blind Side was a story of finding the hidden good in a teen and his adoptive family.

Blindsided is the opposite.  Blindsided is about finding hidden darkness. Stories like Sandusky’s too often help us pile on others as indicative of “what is wrong with the world.”

What I hope stories like this do, on the other hand, is give us each the space to acknowledge that we, too, have dark sides. Many of us have kept ours in check, generally speaking, so as not to have seriously hurt any one.  Even so, everyone of us has the same potential to slide into places and activities and behaviors we 1) know are not right and 2) really do not want to give in to.

What are we to do?  I do not expect a flood of comments here confesses to dark sides.  This wouldn’t really help.  Confessing to a blog can be a start, but it cannot bring healing.  What each of us need, rather, is a trusted place, a person or a few people, with whom we can trust our dark sides and invite to help us.

This is the kind of people that church, or a Church, ought to be. 

What a great Christmas gift this would be for Jesus – whose birthday Christmas is – if we would each become more the kind of person someone else trusts with his or her dark side.