Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Today is Matt's Day

Later today our family will make a pilgrimage to Huntington to visit the grave of my brother Matt. And my brother Ben. They are buried in Pilgrim's Rest Cemetery. We make a point to gather there every year on the anniversary of his death. It seems unbelievable that Matt was killed eight years ago on this day - a Sunday morning then. So much life has happened since, and it's happened without Matt. Or Ben.

Now that Jerm and I have kids, we think of Matt and Ben everytime one the six little Hallman's says or does something just like their uncles. Which always causes a big smile and usually a bigger laugh. And then we like to wonder who Matt and Ben would have married, what their kids would have been like...what Christmas' with everyone would have been like.

After our pilgrimage this afternoon we'll get together at our home for a feast and Wii games. And we'll tell stories about Matt and Ben, look at pictures, and watch their legacy live on in their nephews and nieces. For example, Eli rarely will look "normal" when it comes time to take a picture, just like Matt (it was very annoying then, and still annoying now!). Emma has Ben's big booming voice. Lydia and Levi have Matt's mischievious grin and stubborn will. Eva can sing countless songs, much like Ben did (he would usually serenade us with commercial jingles...). And watching Isaac and Levi play together is like watching Ben and Matt play together.

I remember one August when Matt and Ben took their old Halloween candy (years worth...) and had a little porch sale, making deals with the little kids in the neighborhood! Or when the two of them would race through the house with Zeener-dog, letting that disgusting little beast of a dog lick them and lay on them. Ugh! And I remember the van rides when we'd all get laughing so hard... good times, good times.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Art of Dealing with People...

Every once in awhile I need to read through some aphorisms (short, pithy sayings that capture a truth in a memorable and insightful way). Here's some that struck me as timely and relevant.

Appreciation is a wonderful thing: it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.
~ Voltaire

We should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemies as if he were one day to be our friend.
~ Cardinal Newman

People are not motivated by failure; they are motivated by achievement and recognition.
~ F.F. Fournies

You can impress people from a distance. You can impact people only from up close.
~ Will Richert

You get more of the behavior you reward. You don't get what you hope for, ask for, wish for, or beg for. You get what you reward.
~ Michel Le Boeuf

I will pay more for the ability to deal with people than any other ability under the sun.
~ John D. Rockefeller

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
~ George S. Patton

I hold it more important to have the player's confidence than their affection.
~ Vince Lombardi

Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.
~ John C. Maxwell

The art of dealing with people is the foremost secret of successful men. A man's success in handling people is the very yardstick by which the outcome of his whole life's work is measured.
~ Paul C. Packer

I'll yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under the spirit of criticism.
~ Charles Schwab

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to an ordinary mortal.... It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
~ C.S. Lewis

*all quotes taken from Never Scratch a Tiger with a Short Stick by Gordon S. Jackson

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 12.20.09

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Linus does a masterful job of quoting from the Gospel According to Luke. Through his recitation we are reminded that "unto us is born this day, in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord." It's a great answer - but what does that mean?

Paul gives it a shot, he attempts (what I think is a really good) answer:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God
and were enemies in your minds
because of your evil behavior.
But now he has reconciled you
by Christ's physical body through death
to present you holy in his sight,
without blemish and free from accusation—
if you continue in your faith, established and firm,
and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.
Christ the Lord has come, according to Linus and Paul, to be a Saviour who makes peace amongst us. To what lengths will God go to in order to make peace with humanity and amongst humanity? God is willing to have all his fullness dwell within Jesus of Nazareth, He's willing to let humanity do it's worst to Him, and then to forgive them. That's how far God is willing to go to make peace. And that is what Christmas is all about.

Not only is Christmas all about Christ coming to make peace amongst us, but its also about Christ working through us to make more peace on earth. To use one of Paul's metaphors, if Christ is the Head and We are the Body, then we are to be part of the ongoing work in the world to make peace, to do work of reconciliation, to be part of the restoring work that is much needed.

Humans have proven themselves to be creatively inventive, brilliant, diligent, and capable of enormous good, even greatness. And, of course, of terrible evil. What's one thing that humans have not figured out yet? Lots, but one of them is how to make lasting peace between family members, neighbors, and nations. And Christ keeps insisting that he wants to be known for one thing on the earth - and he wants his people to be known for one thing: making peace, for reconciling.

What if these people who follow Jesus applied all their ingenuity and determination and passion into making more peace wherever they live?

Imagine... it's easy if you try.

The Dangerous Book for Boys

What a joy it is to have my Mother-in-Law intuitively know what is the perfect Christmas gift! She asked for a wishlist, and I gladly submitted one (a bit late, though). Much to her glee, she had already purchased for me the book at the top of my list! What is that book?

The Dangerous Book for Boys, written by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, two British brothers who discovered the wonder and marvel of long Sunday afternoons and imagination. I wanted this tome of danger for me and my boys - a book to spark ideas for adventure and long-marches of discovery.

What makes this book so dangerous? It unleashes a boys sense of wonder - and helps potentially helpful skills like: how to skin a rabbit, how to tan a hide, how to navigate by the stars, how to build a tree-fort, how to make a cipher, how to speak Navajo code-talk, and more! It also includes histories of famous battles, the basics of artillery, and stories of daring adventurers. Not to mention short articles on proper grammar and how to be polite to girls.

The book is designed for boys who are eight through eighty. Hopefully in the next three years I can master some of the dangerous skills, enough to whet the appetite of my three boys, two of whom will be five soon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Love Always Hopes All Things

It's a snowy-sky morning, driving to my Starbucks, when my mind begins to scroll through the tasks and crisis', the relationships and opportunities that are part of my life. A certain kind of confusion and bewilderment ebbs and flows through my brain as I ponder what to do next. Unwanted uncertainty can quickly descend into fearfulness and anxiety. My morning commute is becoming a moment of angst and frustration.

When I left my office Sunday afternoon, I grabbed Kierkegaard's Works of Love - I intended then to read it Tuesday morning (now). A brilliantly insightful book that requires many hours to read a couple dozen pages (I got in about seven pages this morning...). But the work required to digest the writings of Kierkegaard are always well-rewarded. Particularly when what I ingest is connected with what I was obsessing about. What was it I needed to remember?
Love Always Hopes All Things.

But to hope all things in love is the opposite of despairingly hoping nothing at all, either for oneself or for others.

To hope all things, or which is the same, to hope always. Hoping is composed of the eternal and the temporal; the task of hope in the form of the eternal is to hope all things and in the form of the temporal to hope always.

Through the decision to choose hope, one thereby chooses infinitely more than is apparent, for it is an eternal decision (one that dwells in the future, and thus full of possibility).

It is again quite in order to observe that for most men and women possibility and hope, or the sense of the possible, dwindle away with the years.

Hope depends on the possibility of the good.

...everyone who lives without possibility is in despair; he breaks with the eternal; he arbitrarily closes off possibility and without the assent of eternity makes an end where the end is not...

In possibility the eternal is continually near enough to be at hand and yet far enough away to keep man and woman advancing towards the eternal, on the way, in forward movement. In this way the eternal lures and draws a person, in the possible, from cradle to grave, if he just chooses to hope.

To lure means constantly to be just as near as distant, whereby the one hoping is always kept hoping, hoping all things, kept in hope for the eternal, which in time is the possible.

This is what it means to hope all things. But in love to hope all things signifies the lovers' relationship to other men and women, that in relationship to them, hoping for them, he continually keeps possibility open with infinite partiality for his possibility of the good.

Consequently he hopes in love that possibility is present at every moment, that the possibility of the good is present for the other person, and that the possibility of the good means more and more glorious advancement in the good from perfection to perfection or resurrection from downfall or salvation from lostness and thus beyond.

The despairing person also knows what lies in possibility, and yet he or she dismisses possibility (for to dismiss possibility is precisely what despair means), or even more accurately, he or she rashly presumes to suppose the impossibility of the good.

Here again it is shown that the possibility of the good is more than possibility, for when one presumes to suppose the impossibility of the good, the possible dies completely for him.

The fearful person does not suppose the impossibility of the good; he or she fears the possibility of evil, but he does not conclude, he does not presume to suppose, the impossibility of the good.

"It is possible," says despair, "it is possible that even the most sincere enthusiast nevertheless becomes weary, gives up the struggle, and sinks into the service of the second-rate; it is possible that even the deepest believer nevertheless at some time abandons faith and chooses disbelief; it is possible that even the most burning love at some time cools off, chilled; it is possible that even the most upright man comes to a detour and is lost; it is possible that even the best friend can become changed into an enemy, even the most faithful wife into a perjurer - it is possible: therefore despair, give up hope, henceforth do not hope all things in any man or for any woman!" - Yes, indeed, this certainly is possible, but the opposite is also possible.

"Therefore never in unlovingness give up a person or give up hope for him, for it is possible that even the most prodigal son can still be saved, that the most embittered enemy, alas, he who was your friend, it is still possible that he can again become your friend; it is possible that he who has sunk the deepest, alas, because he stood so high, it is still possible that he can be raised up again; it is still possible that the love which has turned cold can burn again - therefore never give up any man or woman, not even at the last moment; do not despair. No, hope all things!"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 12.13.09

What kind of Christ do you worship at Christmas? Since we want to keep Christ in Christmas, what kind of Christ are we keeping? The shepherds were invited to go and worship the newborn King. These days we celebrate the brilliant arrival of God as a vulnerable baby. The incarnation - God taking on flesh - is pretty important to our understanding of Christmas. But is it enough for us to just focus on Baby Jesus at Christmas time?

How big is your Christ? The Christ you worship at Christmas - what is he capable of? Does the Christ you worship inspire you or is he pretty easy to ignore? Is Jesus just a newborn baby or is he really a Savior able to rescue? Charlie Brown cries out: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? And what does Linus provide for an answer? He quotes Scripture. The emphasis is on a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

Paul crafts a poem to capture the vast capabilities of this Savior:
The Son is the appearance of the unseen God,
the firstborn over all creation.

For in him all things were created:
things in the heavens and on the earth, seen and unseen,
whether seen thrones or unseen powers or seen rulers or unseen authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And he is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from out of the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

What kind of Christ does Paul worship? One that inspires confidence and prompts hope. This is the kind of Christ that is worth trusting. This is a Christ that is way bigger than any problem you could ever face. You know how big your problems have been, how big they could get. And Christ is bigger.

This Christmas - with whatever problem you are facing, with whatever fears you are harboring, give them back to Christ the Lord who comes as a humble yet very effective Savior. If Christ holds all things together - he can hold your heart together, he can hold your life together. Whatever is breaking or cracking or drifting or ebbing away in your life, Christ can restore and renew and reconcile.

This is what Christmas is all about - trusting Christ the Lord born as a Savior to us. Let him save you; let him use you to save others. Our world - your world, still needs a Savior. Let Jesus be the Savior, you be his hands and feet. Let Christ be the Lord, you be the Anchor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Where Did Christmas Come From? (Part 2)

Why do we do what we do at Christmas time? None of it traces back to the first Christians - who would have been the ones to celebrate the birth of Christ. Thankfully the Catholic church honored the saints and scheduled feast days, which is why one was chosen for Jesus.

By now you've probably heard why December 25th was chosen? According to the Roman calendar, 12/25 was the winter solstice, the shortest day of year, the longest night, the least light. But that meant it was also the harbringer of longer days, that the nights to follow wouldn't be as long. Thus this day took on festive (feasts and celebrations) of the victory of the sun over the conquests of the night. Apt metaphor in connection with the accomplishment of Christ on the cross.

All that to say, December 25th was a feast day for the birth of Christ, but for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years it was just another feast day and a day of worship, alongside all the other dozens and dozens and dozens of saints. Even with the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December 6th, there was no concept of gift giving as we know it, there was no traveling to spend time with family, there was no exchange of cards, no shopping for loved ones.

In fact, the one fact that made December such a wonderful time of the year was that the harvest was collected and it was the one time of the year when you slaughtered the cattle and pigs (it would keep a lot better during the winter...). December was the one month in the year when there was mounds of food to consume, it was a time of leisure for serfs and barons and farmers and slaves. The weather was usually mild enough to not prohibit public gatherings in the village, and it was thus a great time to make merry. Thus some fantastic feasts took place in December. Oh, did you know that December 26th is St. Stephen's Day? Just another day to feast!

But here is what is interesting about the feasts in December. Many of the peasants and serfs would "wassail" through the village to the homes of the rich(er), enter in, sit down at the table, and sing for some food. The "wassail" is our precursor to caroling throughout the neighborhood. But the "wassail" had much more of a dangerous edge: it was a song with a threat. If the "hosts" didn't provide the best cakes and ale in the house, the waissailers might have to get rough. As long as the hosts played along with a smile and generosity, everything stayed merry.

Why would the rich allow this sort of disgraceful intrusion, you ask. It seems it was one of the few times during the year when their was a flip-flop in the social order, when the peasants could tell the land-lords/barons what to do. And the rich allowed it as a way for the peasants to blow-off steam; a hard winter was on its way, and this little "game" of waissaling helped create some good-will.

This scenario led to an interesting development: during December it was expected that you would throw inhibitions out the window, and you would eat and drink as much as you could for as long as you could. It was also a time to make merry, blow off steam, be rowdy, harrass the rich and powerful, frolic and flirt. St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Day were just two days that happened to fall during this December decadence.

The Puritans opposed all this stuff for two reasons: first because the merry-making was tinged with gluttony and lust and drunkeness - too much unholiness! And the Puritans resisted the observation of Catholic feast days; and they led the charge in insisting that nobody knows the day of the birth of Christ (they argued that if God had wanted us to celebrate it, he would have told us when it happened).

In New England, as the Industrial Revolution increased the wealth and eased the hardships of many Bostonians, New Yorkers, Philadelphians and others, the season of December came under scrutiny. The working poor of the factories were demanding time off of work to feast, they were breaking into the homes of the patrician-wealthy to wassail for food, they were getting pregnant out of wedlock, getting stone-drunk, and putting whole cities in uproars with riots. The rich were getting tired of the December decadence. It was time to do something about it.

The result: Instead of the rich focusing on the poor - giving gifts of food and drink, they created a Christmas where adults give gifts of books and simple toys to children. Instead of public festivities that the working poor often turned into riots, a Christmas was created where families spend time together at home in a quiet dinner. Instead of encouraging the decadence of the working poor in December - their gluttony and carousing and ribald waissaling, a Christmas was created where people over-indulged in commercial exchanges, going overboard in their special gifts to children and women.

If you find any of this interesting, be sure to visit your local library and read The Battle for Christmas by historian Stephen Nissenbaum. A fascinating insight into the development of our society - the powerful forces that shaped our concept of the family, of the holidays, of the relationships between the rich and poor, the fusion of civic duty and commercial-capitalism, the tension between religion and pagan festivities.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Where Did Christmas Come From?

I'm curious to know where our modern version of Christmas comes from. Aren't you? Where did the name of Santa Claus come from? How about Kris Kringle? Why does he come down the chimney? Why does he give gifts to only good boys and girls? What possible connection is there between a Santa-centered and a Christ-centered Christmas? Does it matter?

A fascinating book, The Battle for Christmas, by historian Stephen Nissenbaum, starts with the Puritans of New England who outlawed Christmas festivities due to their rowdy revelry, disorderly drunkeness, and obnoxious waissailing.

Back in those days there was no gift-giving, no Christmas carols, no Santa with reindeer, no Nativity scenes, no exchange of cookies. December 25 was just another day at work - mostly only Catholics marked it as the day of the Birth of Christ (but to which Puritan Protestants protested...). St. Nicholas' day of veneration was December 6th, but again only Catholics did much with the day. Actually New Year's Day garnered more attention and festivities.

Without giving too much of the book away (I'm only in the third chapter), Nissenbaum discovered that our modern version of Christmas is tied to the famous (and apparently subversive) poem: "A Visit from St. Nicholas" written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. Moore, in collaboration with a wealthy New York merchant named John Pintard, set about to create a myth about Christmas as a way to alter the social landscape. What they did (to summarize vast amounts of detail...) was create Christmas as a commercialized event meant to domesticate the family and create childhood. Whoa!

So what? Well, for the curious-minded folks like myself, the details and implications are thought-provoking. Our American Christmas is domesticating, it perpetuates an invented form of childhood, and it is purposefully commercialized. It is completely incompatible with the Nativity Story. And Santa Claus was invented to perpetuate this paradox. Fascinating indeed!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 12.06.09

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

It can be easy to get a cynical around Christmastime. The commercialism and the schedule can get overwhelming. And there's the fretting over purchasing just the right gift - both for those you love and for those you're obligated to be kind to; purchasing with either money you don't have, or money you shouldn't be spending, or spending more than you ought. And then there's the nostalgic whiff of Christmas you are hoping to capture at some random moment during the holidays, a moment that is almost grasped, and then its gone. Oh, and don't forget the painful memories that regularly emerge in your mind during this season...

Is there a better alternative than becoming cynical or overwhelmed at Christmastime? Yes. It's way better to keep choosing joy and gratitude. Obviously. Yet, strangely, too many of us don't...

When Paul writes his friends in Colosse - families and neighbors who knew what it meant to be overwhelmed, to be cynical, to be grasping... - Paul writes out his prayer for them: that they would have great joy and much gratitude. Here, read it for yourself:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you... giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

We may not identify too well with talk about kingdoms and kings, but we can relate to the ideas of light and darkness, or rescue and redemption, of love and forgiveness. We may not think much about it, but we do sing about a newborn King quite often. Interestingly, it may help to recall the Jesus we sing about at Christmastime. Maybe you didn't know this: Jesus came as the Jewish King, Israel’s Chosen One, God’s Anointed to deliver His People from the Dominion of Darkness. He did. And He still does.

Jesus came as the newborn King of Israel at a very dark hour in world history. And though the night sky was briefly alight with angel-glory, Jesus through the long decades was just one tiny light of love and rescue in his world. But then, one by one, more lives became lit by the same kind of forgiveness and peace, and the vision expanded for what people could see and become.

One light at a time... you may not think it makes that big of a difference whether you choose joy or gratitude. But you may also have no idea how many people NEED you or desperately WANT you to make that choice. Once you make that radical choice, once your life is lit up, you begin to see the other lives lit up by the Spirit of Christ, masses of individuals who, when gathered together, illuminate the world in a new and beautiful way.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Linus quotes Luke, who quotes the angel-army: peace on earth, goodwill to men; Christ the Lord, our Saviour is born in a barn. Do you need rescued? Is it dark in that hole you're stuck in? Do you know anybody who needs rescued? Do you fear to forgive? Do you recoil from redeeming others, of setting them free from what enslaves them? Do you want to live in the Spirit of Christ? Masses of people are in need of Christ-ones to come be light, come and rescue, come and bring peace. Let it start with you, in your heart, in your home, in your world, in your Christmas.

When is your Christmas tree the most beautiful? When is it best to drive through the neighborhood gazing at the decorated homes and trees? At night, when it is dark. When is the best time to choose joy and gratitude? Yeah... you guessed it: when it is darkest. The choice to give thanks and be joy-full when you feel crushed or confused, exhausted or in a hole - that is what fuels the light of Christmas, it's what other people need to see. Too many people are only thankful when the going is good. Too many people will only be happy at Christmas when everything goes their way. Good luck with that.

Choose joy instead of cynicism, choose being grateful instead of being overwhelmed. It'll make you stand out like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It's what the world needs now...

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Western Way of War

"War is a human experience that will always be with us."

So says Victor Davis Hanson, quoted in Imprimis 11/09. To his point, war has been a constant companion of civilizations and tribes throughout the past many millenia. If past is prelude, we can expect war to be with us for many generations to come. Hanson doesn't delve into why war is always with us, but goes on to argue why the Western way of war is superior. And under girding his argument is the assumption our way is morally-superior. And under girding that is the obvious: if there is going to be war, the West had better find a way to always win.

What is the Western way of war? Davis summarizes: Superior fighting and defense capability because of our prosperity in times of peace. He lists five factors: Constitutional government was conducive to civilian input when it came to war; it gave birth to a new definition of courage; usage of advanced technology; impatience for victory as well as tradition for dissent within the ranks.

Hanson fails to mention a very very obvious factor of the Western way of war: it is predatory.

Alexander the Great was predatory. The Caesars were predatory. European kings and princes were predatory. Empires of Spain and Portugal, France and Britain, Denmark and Germany were all predatory. The United States of America has inherited a Western way of war that is inherently predatory, whatever else it may be. If war is going to be a constant within our culture, then the key factor will be to limit or subvert the predatory nature of our way of war.

I totally understand the need for armed guards and trained soldiers to protect and defend from other peoples who would steal what is not theirs, to destroy what they envy and cannot attain. And I understand the theory of "preemptive strikes" as a way to deter the "enemy" before they make their intended and otherwise undeterred attack. However, when military and civilian leaders remain blind to the predatory nature of Western war, and when they intend to grow the economy through warfare upon others, their dismissiveness towards those who are anti-war is unconscionable. It's obvious that war is good business for capitalism. The Industrial Revolution and Empire Expansion are at the heart of our modern way of war in the West.

And now the Western way of life is threatened by non-Western peoples who would like to be as powerful as the West. Who are we in the West to deny for others what we have killed to attain for ourselves? Free-market capitalism, constitutional democracy, a Bill of Rights, embrace of reason have all been a blessing to civilizations, especially ours. But we corrupt them when we assume our way of war is always justifiable; our way of war rooted in the expansionism of Greece, the crucifixions of Rome, the genocides by the European knights, the enslavement of Africa by the Empires of the West.

If there is to be war, then the United States of America has an opportunity now in World History to reconfigure how we are to do war. With all the investments being done now to alleviate poverty and hunger in the world, with all the efforts being put forth to raise standards of living and educational levels, with all the global sacrifices being made to end diseases and heal the crippled, now is the time for our nation to revise our way of war. Especially for Christians, now is the time to creatively and realistically reshape the Western way of war. I suppose it could be a way of making amends for all the times the Church has used the sword.

Lastly, there might be elements to our way of life that need correcting - so much so that without a severe adjustment we will provoke non-Western nations to attack us. It might be that America is reaching an age where our way of life is unsustainable apart from war. If this unsustainability is now the way of the West, then our way will descend into the valley of the shadow of death. And there will be no One to comfort us.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 11.29.09

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

That's the famous cry of Charlie Brown, on stage, after his directing debut goes awry. But it's not just the frustration of haggling with the trials of pulling off a Christmas play. It's a question we all ask ourselves at some point during the holiday season, especially when it starts off with a big push to buy stuff. When we start to feel like Christmas has become commercialized, there's a certain part of us that winces. We want the nostalgic Christmas to prevail... But is even that what Christmas is all about?

How to think about what Christmas is all about? Here's a question to consider:
What if Christmas was not just about the gift giving of stuff, but also about you becoming the gift of Christ to others?

There is no escaping the fact that Christmas as we know it centers around the giving and receiving of gifts. And for Christians, this includes at some point inserting the Nativity Story into the traditional activities. But when we pause from being so busy, we ought to remember that Christmas is not about stuff, is not about giving and receiving, it's about God becoming Human. Which means that people, not stuff, are the most important part of our Christmas celebrations. If we are going to keep Christ in the center of Christmas, then we ought to consider how we can become the gift - the best gift - the one gift that "stuff" can't replace.

There is a fascinating letter that Paul sent to his friends, and in one part of it he encourages them to become the kind of person that is a gift to others in their life. Here's what he writes:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you,
we have not stopped praying for you.
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will
through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,
so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way:
*bearing fruit in every good work,
*growing in the knowledge of God,
*being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience

[Colossians 1v9-11 TNIV]
Paul wants his friends to imagine a life where - now get this.. - EVERY good work bears fruit. Think about that - what an inspiring and beautiful vision of how life could unfold for you and your family and friends and... Every good work you do bears fruit. Amazing. What an incentive to keep on doing the good work you know you ought to do, the good work you want to do, the good work you need to do. Imagine a Christmas where you knew that every good work you did in the Holidays would bear fruit... what a joy and delight you would be to others.

Of course we're not talking about microwave results - more like apple tree results. From the time an apple falls to the ground, its seeds imbed in the dirt, a sprout emerges, and a blossoming apple tree graces the garden - well we're talking years and years. But if that is how life works, and if we want to live with the promise that good fruit WILL come from our good work... what a way to move forward in life, bolstered by the promise of long-term fruit.

Paul also wants his friends to imagine a life where they know God. Not just know about God, or know people who act like they know God. Imagine a life where you know God. How encouraging. Think about your family and friends that you like for how this works: the better you know someone, the better you know what they want (and need) from you and what they want for you. At some point you know them so well you can finish their sentences for them, you know what to get for them before they ask, they join you in finishing a task without a request for help because they just know.... Now imagine that kind of relationship with God. What assurance for your place in this world, what confidence for making decisions about tomorrow and the years to come, peace about who you are and what you can contribute to the community.

Paul then wants his friends to imagine a life where they are strengthened by God's Spirit so that they have all the energy and ability they need to accomplish all the tasks they are given. I know (and you do too...) what it's like to be exhausted from the daily routines of running a household, of having a job, of being a friend, etc. Imagine a life where God's Spirit sustains us, guides us, empowers us to become the kind of person the world needs, that God made us to be.

Linus answers Charlie Browns question by quoting Scripture, by retelling a story about Jesus of Nazareth. Here's a link to the clip.

Here's a quote of what he recites:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
"That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown."

What will you make Christmas be all about? Will it be about stuff again? Or will you help it become about a gift - about the kind of gift Christ can help you become? Become the gift of peace to your friends and families, to your neighbors and coworkers, and even to your enemies.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Get to Know Your Neighbor Up North (that's Canada... in case you were wondering)

Here's a simple overview of the Canadian provinces, some helpful insights for which region you may want to visit or relocate to in the coming years. My Ontario friend Brian Magnus sent me this fascinating summary, therefore it must be true.

1. Vancouver : 1.5 million people and two bridges. You do the math.
2. Your $400,000 Vancouver home is just 5 hours from downtown.
3. You can throw a rock and hit three Starbucks locations.
4. There's always some sort of deforestation protest going on.
5. Weed.

1. Big rock between you and B.C..
2. Ottawa who?
3. Tax is 5% instead ofthe approximately 200% it is for the rest of the country.
4. You can exploit almost any natural resource you can think of.
5. You live in the only province that could actually afford to be its own country.
6. The Americans below you are all in anti-government militia groups.

1. You never run out of wheat.
2. Your province is really easy to draw.
3. You can watch the dog run away from home for hours.
4. People will assume you live on a farm.
5. Daylight savings time? Who the hell needs that!

1. You wake up one morning to find that you suddenly have a beachfront property.
2. Hundreds of huge, horribly frigid lakes.
3. Nothing compares to a wicked Winnipeg winter.
4. You can be an Easterner or a Westerner depending on your mood.
5. You can pass the time watching trucks and barns float by.

1. You live in the centre of the universe.
2. Your $400,000 Toronto home is actually a dump.
3. You and you alone decide who will win the federal election.
4. The only province with hard-core American-style crime.

1. Racism is socially acceptable.
2. You can take bets with your friends on which English neighbour will move out next.
3. Other provinces basically bribe you to stay in Canada .
4. You can blame all your problems on the "Anglo A*#!%!"

1. One way or another, the government gets 98% of your income.
2. You're poor, but not as poor as the Newfies.
3. No one ever blames anything on New Brunswick .
4. Everybody has a grandfather who runs a lighthouse..

1. Everyone can play the fiddle. The ones who can't, think they can.
2. You can pretend to have Scottish heritage as an excuse to get drunk and wear a kilt.
3. You are the only reason Anne Murray makes money.

1. Even though more people live on Vancouver Island , you still got the big, new bridge.
2. You can walk across the province in half an hour.
3. You can drive across the province in two minutes.
4. Everyone has been an extra on "Road to Avonlea."
5. This is where all those tiny, red potatoes come from.
6. You can confuse ships by turning your porch lights on and off at night.

1. If Quebec separates, you will float off to sea.
2. If you do something stupid, you have a built-in excuse.
3. The workday is about two hours long.
4. It is socially acceptable to wear your hip waders to your wedding.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What if Christianity is a Farce?

This morning I had an invigorating conversation with a friend of mine about the origins of Christianity. He's done some intense research on the transition from Jewish Christianity/James the Brother of Jesus to the Gentile Christianity/Paul the Apostle. There are scholars out there who have proposed alternative ways of reading the New Testament, using the writings of Josephus and fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls (and other documents). When other ancient texts are brought to bear on the New Testament characters and events, new interpretations emerge of how history may have unfolded. What if everything we have been taught is wrong?

For those of us secure in our faith, we dismiss this question easily. We believe what we have been taught is true, it is reliable and thus we have plenty of assurance. But there are obviously lots of people who aren't sure about the reliability of what they have been taught. And when investigations begin into ancient history, timelines get messy, stories contradict, and alternative perspectives emerge. How do you know what is the truth?

What happened in the centuries following Jesus prior to the ascension of Constantine to the throne of the Roman Empire and his endorsement of Christianity as it's official religion? How did Christianity change following that co-option by the Emperor? What do Protestants do with the "Catholic" and "Orthodox" centuries of church history? What do Evangelicals do with our fascination with the First Century church - what if the book of Acts and the Epistles aren't the only sources of reliable information?

Do any of these questions really matter in light of the real-life issues we all have to endure as the weeks swiftly accumulate into years? Don't we have better things to do with our lives than probe into archaic issues? Granted, these questions aren't for everybody to delve into. But they interest me. My friend has prompted some good questions, provoked a quest of sorts to dig and discover more about the origins of Christianity. What is the connection between Jesus and his brother James (the bishop of the Jerusalem Church)? What is the connection between James & Peter and Paul? What about the Church Fathers of the second and third century (100AD thru 300AD) - what were the variant views in existence and how is it that we decided what was "orthodox/correct" and what was heresy? Still today there are many, many, many divergent views of everything within Christianity (thus the existence of THOUSANDS of denominations, sects, and branches). This is not going to fade away anytime soon.

Maybe there is a new Christianity that is emerging; it is post-Evangelical, post-Anabaptist, post-Protestant, post-Catholic, post-Orthodox. It is a Christianity that is unfettered by the whims of Empire, it is able to hold together a mosaic of theologies, it is again the religion of the poor and working-class, it is refocused on a Jesus of Nazareth that is a Prophet (according to the Gospels) and the Christ (according to the Epistles). As we rediscover more details about the emergence of Christianity two-thousand years ago, we may be able to embrace what Christianity will become in the millenias ahead of us.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thank You Starbucks

This past Tuesday I made my regular stop at my Starbucks. Every once in awhile the manager will rearrange the layout of the tables, chairs and display stuff. I like change, so I don't ever mind it. Except one time, last year. For whatever reason the four round tables were all replaced with square tables. Ugh! I did not like that change at all. Not that sharing my opinion mattered much. Despite my protest, the square tables stayed. For a little bit. Much to my joy, the square tables kept falling apart (and no, I did not sabotage any of them...). So back out came the beloved round tables. I just think that the round tables are more welcoming and relaxing. The square tables come across as serious and boring.

Thus it was with much angst I entered my Starbucks this past Tuesday and the square tables had returned. No round tables in sight anywhere. I went to a table, set my bookbag down, went through my little routine of getting my studyspace ready, and then went up to order my drink. Erin the manager asked how I liked the new square tables. I then made my displeasure known, and expressed my fondness for the round tables. And then the gloriously surprising question from Erin: do you want the tables? What? You can give them to me? Erin said that if the church wanted them, we could have them. And wouldn't you know I just happened to have the minivan with me that afternoon. It's like I was destined to receive those rejected round tables. I tried not to smile too big - what a delightful gift. I also tried not to be too obnoxious in my gratitude. What luck!

Later that afternoon, after Erin and I loaded up the four round tables into the van, I got a little too nostalgic about all the memories I have with these tables. I know that in the past five years many other people have sat at these tables. But in those years that I have been coming to my Starbucks to read and study and write and pray and think and reflect and learn and make friends - a lot has happened in my life while sitting at those round coffee tables. I've always looked forward to walking into my Starbucks, shouting out a hello to the baristas working, catching up on how a weekend went, how the day is going, or getting into longer conversations about life. I've also always looked forward to settling down at one of those round coffeetables by a window, a cup of steaming Americano underneath my nose, a book, and a pen. And then the thoughts, the pondering, the wondering, the floundering, the finding. And then seeing a friend, or making a new friend.

Now that some of the round coffeetables are in my office, they seem out of place. I look at those tables and I remember the books I read, the decisions I made, the moments when something made sense in a new way, when I caught onto an idea that had been floating around in my soul, when I admitted something to be true, when I accepted reality on God's terms. The tables seem out of place in my office, but they are round reminders of my friends at Starbucks, of my many many many hours spent there, of my spot by the window.

So, thank you Erin for the gift. Thank you to all the baristas at my Starbucks for your kindness, your friendliness, your warm-heartedness, your generosity, your skill, and your diligence. You work hard, and you've created a great store with a great atmosphere. Thanks.

FYI: My wife likes to talk about the different times she has called my Starbucks to ask if I'm there. It's nice to be known on a first name basis with a coffeeshop. We also like to remember the time my Starbucks called my house to make sure I was coming in that day in order for them to give me some free product. That, my friends, is some of what makes my Starbucks so great!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kierkegaard & Doubt, Faith and Character,

It's come to my attention that I make life more difficult than it ought to be. I can be harder on myself than is necessary. And I guess this means I can be harder than I need to be on the people in my life (sooo... "Sorry" to Tara, Emma, Levi, Isaac, Eli, Dad, Mum, etc.). What are all the factors that drive me to be so hard on myself and others? That, my friends, is the kind of question which fuels my problem. I seek to understand to the point that I suck the fun out of the search. It's like I'm driven by a paranoia, a fear, an insatiable curiosity that requires boundaries.

This is where Kierkegaard comes in. You know how you find some writers/thinkers out there that can put into words what is churning within your depths? That's what Soren does for me.

Here's some stuff I read this morning that helped me, maybe it will help you too.

Faith's conflict with the world is not a battle of thought with doubt, thought with thought. It is a battle of character. The person of faith is a person of character who does not insist upon comprehending everything.

Now comes the conflict. The world insists that to believe what you cannot comprehend is not only blind obeisance but obscurantism, stupidity, and so on. The world wants to alarm the believer against such foolishness. This is precisely why faith is a task for the person of such a character. p258

Teach me, Lord, that the fight of faith is not a fight with doubt, thought against though, but a fight for character. Enable me to see that human vanity consists in having to understand. Save me from the vanity of not being willing to obey like a child, and of wanting to be like a grown man who has to understand.

Help me to realize that he who will not obey when he cannot understand does not, in any essential sense, obey you at all. Make me a believer, a "character man," who, unreservedly obedient, sees it as necessary for his character's sake that he must not always understand. Make me willing to believe even when I cannot understand. p258

If you suffer because you do good, because you are in the right, because you are loving; if it is because you are for a good cause that you live despised, persecuted, ridiculed, in poverty, then you will find that you do not doubt Christ's resurrection.

Why? Because you need it. pg 256

~ Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Digging Deeper

I suppose one of the key reasons why I'm a pastor is due to the enjoyment I get out of studying the Scriptures. Call me a geek or a religious nut, but I've always had a knack for remembering the Bible stories I learned as a kid. My dad was a pastor, so we were always in church on Sundays. They weren't mega-churches with crazy awesome kids programs. They were smallish churches with devoted folks who took time to teach Bible stories to a handful of squirrely kids. And I liked it.

And as I grew up I kept on reading the Bible in order to be more familiar with the stories. And the older I got, the more questions I had about what I was reading. The more I was able to link ideas and stories together, the more questions came up in my head - not only about what the stuff meant, but also about who wrote this stuff, why did they write it, what's the history and culture behind it.

This is one of the reasons why I went back to school in 2003 - to dig even deeper into the original languages of the Scriptures (in college my Greek professor said that you could get 20% more out of the text if you read it in the original language); to dig deeper into the culture of the original stories - what was ancient Israel like, what was the Roman Empire like, what was the Mediterranean culture like in the first century. I also wanted to dig deeper into church history - how did the 21st century church get here, what was the road we traveled, and what does that mean for where we are headed. All of this to help me improve my ability to read and understand what was written in the Scriptures.

Here's a problem that many pastors face though, after they've finished all this schooling. Where do you find the time to "use" this knowledge? At school I learned to read the Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew - a totally enlightening experience. Except in order for it to have long term effect, I have to keep working to develop my skill in these languages otherwise I will lose them. And since I'm not very apt at the languages, it takes extra energy and time to stay up on it. And I really liked the experience, paid a bunch of money for the experience, and have seen good things come from it. But the pace of a pastor's life and ministry quickly rules out even a couple of hours a week working on Greek and Hebrew texts.

One of my classes I chose at TEDS, having completed my Greek language courses, was to study the book of Romans; this included translating the whole thing from Greek to English. A very time consuming task but very very rewarding. So a year or two later I shared with my Greek language professor that I had appreciated his class, that he had been very helpful to me, and that I had gone on to translate the book of Romans. Without missing a step (he always walked briskly wherever he was going...) he told me that I should translate the book of Acts next.

Since then, I've been thinking about the challenge. It's about the only way I can really stay in the original texts. I've tried to just do random verses for translation work, but it's too hard to stay with that kind of plan. Since I'm going to be preaching through the book of Acts later in 2010, I'm going to start working on translation now and see how far I can get. Whenever I do some Greek translation work for my sermon prep, it is always rewarding. So now my plan is to spend one very early morning a week to translate at least one chapter every two weeks or so. Though I'll have to go faster than that if I really want to get it done by the time I start my series. We'll see...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Kierkegaard & Gospel for the Poor

Christ was not making a historical observation when he declared: The gospel is preached to the poor. The accent is on the gospel, that the gospel is for the poor. Here the word "poor" does not simply mean poverty but all who suffer, are unfortunate, wretched, wronged, oppressed, crippled, lame, leprous, demonic.

The gospel is preached to them, that is, the gospel is for them. The gospel is good news for them. What good news? Not: money, health, status, and so on - no, this is not Christianity.

No, for the poor the gospel is the good news because to be unfortunate in this world is a sign of God's nearness. So it was originally; this is the gospel of the New Testament. It is preached for the "poor," and it is preached by the poor who, if they in other respects were not suffering, would eventually suffer by proclaiming the gospel; since suffering is inseparable from following Christ, from telling the truth.

But soon there came a change. When preaching the gospel became a livelihood, even a lush livelihood, then the gospel became good news for the rich and for the mighty. For how else was the preacher to acquire and secure rank and dignity unless Christianity secured the best for all? Christianity thus ceased to be glad tidings for those who suffer, a message of hope that transfigures suffering into joy, but a guarantee for the enjoyment of life intensified and secured by the hope of eternity.

The gospel no longer benefits the poor essentially. In fact, Christianity has now even become a downright injustice to those who suffer (although we are not always conscious of this, and certainly unwilling to admit it). Today the gospel is preached to the rich, the powerful, who have discovered it to be advantageous. We are right back again to the very state original Christianity wanted to oppose!

The rich and powerful not only get to keep everything, but their success becomes the mark of their piety, the sign of their relationship with God. And this prompts the old atrocity again - namely, the idea that the unfortunate, the poor are to blame for their condition; that it is because they are not pious enough, are not true Christians, that they are poor, whereas the rich have not only pleasure but piety as well. This is supposed to be Christianity. Compare it with the New Testament, and you will see that this is as far from that as possible.
~ Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations, ed. by C. Moore

Note: Kierkegaard was a Christian in Denmark, writing and railing against the entrenched national religion of Christianity during the 1840's and 50's. He was (is) a brilliant thinker, theologian, philosopher, and agitator. Here we are in America an ocean and a century and a half away, and yet the provocations are still convicting.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Way Out of Poverty

"Productivity growth and, hence, the way out of poverty, is not simply a matter of throwing resources at the problem. More important, it is a matter of using resources well."

In other words, countries grow out of poverty not only when they manage their fiscal and monetary policies responsibly from above, i.e., reform wholesale. In recent years, a lot of attention and moral concern has been devoted to the roblem of persistent poverty, particularly in Africa. That is a good thing. But persistent poverty is a practical problem as well as a moral one, and we do ourelves no good to focus on our moral failings and not the practical shortcomings of the countries and governments involved.

Poor people grow out of poverty when their governments create an envioronment in which educated workers and capitalists have the physical and legal infrastructure that makes it easy to start businesses, raise capital, and become entrepreneurs, and when they subject their people to at least some competition from beyond - because companies and countries with competitors always innovate more, better, and faster. pg 402

...if you change the regulatory and business environment for the poor, and give them the tools to collaborate, the will do the rest. pg 403
~ Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat

In my work to better understand the causes of poverty as well as the way out of poverty, most of my research has been done using religious-based sources. It's also helpful to read and discover what non-religious sources have to say about the reality of poverty. If a church is going to help lift its neighborhood out of poverty, we need to understand some of the bigger forces at work. If a church is going to bring a full-orbed Good News to the poor, it had better understand how to be realistically helpful, intentional, resourceful, creative, and persistent.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody

So you think you know all there is to know about people like Nero and Cleopatra, Lady Godiva and Lucrezia Borgia?

How terribly, terribly wrong you are.

For here are the immortals of history in a delightful new light, irreverently stripped of the aura of time and revealed (in none of their glory) as the human beings they really were - the foolish, fallible, fascinating, famous, so very much our own common ancestors. (from the back cover...)

Interested in history as I am, this book immediately caught my attention. My Mum said I could borrow it, she was quite pleased that I had discovered it on her bookshelf, and she was eager for me to read it. What a Mum!

Now that I'm finished with it (regrettably), I'm afraid that I will never look at a famous person the same again. And that may be a good thing. Below are some quotes from some of the different characters that get roasted by this smart-alec author Will Cuppy.

Queen Elizabeth had a quick temper because her endocrine balance was all upset. She hated dentists, long sermons, Lettice Knollys, and the Countess of Shrewsbury. She liked presents, flattery, dancing, swearing, prevaricating, bear-baiting, succory pottage, ale, beer, and the Masters of the Horse. p168

Henry VIII was married six times and was called the Defender of the Faith or Old Pudding-Face. He was passionately fond of sweets. He would also eat roast bustard, barbecued porpoises, quince preserves, and boiled carp.
Either you like Henry VIII or you don't. He has been much criticized for beheading two of his wives. In a way, he has only himself to blame. Any man who beheads two of his wives must expect a little talk. He shouldn't have done it, but you know how things are. As a matter of fact, Henry merely let the law take its course, but some people feel that a really thoughtful husband would have done something about it.Besides, he let some of them live, for those were the days of chivalry, when knighthood was in flower. p 161

William [the Conqueror] was born in 1027 or 1028 and showed early signs of his future greatness. He was a manly little fellow, always fighting and wrangling and knocking the other children down. After his father died near Jerusalem, he became more independent and took to putting out people's eyes. He also spread a little poison around where it would do the most good. p154-155

Frederick the Great was the founder of what used to be modern Germany. When he was a little old man he had a hook nose. He wore old uniforms covered with snuff and said very funny but very nasty things to his neighbors.
Frederick the Great died in 1786, at the age of seventy-four, alone but for a single servant and his faithful dogs, whom he loved better than human beings, because, as he said, "they were never ungrateful, and remained true to their friends." Besides, they couldn't see through him. pg 151, 152

Catherine the Great had been in Russia eighteen years and was getting into a rut. But look what happened. The Empress Elizabeth died of her cherry brandy, and Peter succeeded her as Peter III. Six months later Catherine dethroned and imprisoned him and had herself proclaimed Empress, with the aid of Gregory Orlov and his brothers. In the excitement the Russians forgot that she was a total outsider with no rights to the crown, so there they were with a German lady ruling them, somewhat to their surprise.
It was pretty sad about Peter. A few days after his arrest he died suddenly at Ropsha while Alexis Orlov and some friends of the Empress were with him. Catherine announced that he died of hemorrhoidal colic, and people who went to the funeral wondered why, in taht case, the large bandage was tied around his neck. And that, gentle reader, is what comes of playing with dolls at the wrong time. At first glance the pastime may seem as safe as the next one. It just doesn't work out in actual practice. pg 141-143

Peter [the Great] became Tsar in 1682, when he was only ten. He spent the next few years playing practical jokes. He was very fond of wit and humor, such as knocking out people's teeth with a pickax and blowing their heads off with fireworks. He knew what the public wanted.
Meanwhile, Russia was run by Peter's half-sister, Sophia. Sophia was very homely and believed in the women's rights movement. She tried to have Peter murdered, and he imprisoned her so that she could think it over.
One Thursday morning Peter suddenly decided to reform Russia and give it all the advantages of Western civilization. This was afterwards called Black Thursday. He thought that the more morons talked to about this the more he would know, so he went abroad. pg 131-132

Louis XIV was born rather suddenly in 1638. His parents... were married for twenty-two years without having a baby. Because of the long delay, the infant was called Louis Dieu-Donne, or Louis the God-Given. He was afterwards known as Louis le Roi Soleil, or Louis the Show-Off. Extremely dull as a child, he gradually developed this characteristic into a system. In later life he knew a good deal about a wide range of subjects but nothing definite about any one subject.
Some scholars explain Louis's dullness by his royal position, kings being more or less out of touch, but this would hardly account for the symptoms. Others say he was deliberately kept in a state of ignorance by his teachers when he was a boy. No professors, however, could have turned out so perfect a job unless the pupil showed a natural aptitude of no mean order. They would have slipped up somewhere. Sometimes Louis showed a brief glimmer of intelligence. Then everything would return to normal again. pg 112-113

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Suburban Captivity of the Churches - 8

If you are interested in learning more about how the forces of a metropolis affect the ministry of local churches, let me know and I'll take you out for coffee at my Starbucks to talk. And if you really want to learn more, I suggest Gibson Winter's book. Very illuminating and disturbing.

The churches have had notable successes in the growing suburbs; they have suffered dismal failures in the central areas of the metropolis.

Religiousness or irreligiousness in the United States will depend upon the development of ministries in the metropolitan areas. This is where the masses of the population of the United States will work out their destinies in the coming generation; this is where the destiny of the nation will be decided for better or worse.
-- The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, Gibson Winter, pg 15

A whole new vista has opened up to me concerning the cultural context of Anchor's facility location in the central area of Fort Wayne. Does the location of a church facility affect the capacity of your ministry, of who will be part of that ministry? Yes. What is the significance of thriving suburban churches and struggling urban churches? A matter of leadership and maturity? God's blessing and wise moral choices? What are the dangers of being a prosperous suburban church? What are the riptides tearing away at urban churches?

These are all significant questions that have surfaced for me as I worked my way through Winters immensely insightful book on the "trenchant dilemma of American Protestantism - its severance from the urgent needs and challenges of the metropolis - and a program for its revitalization."

Sunday marks eleven years as pastor of Anchor; our facility is located about ten blocks from Main Street Fort Wayne. It's a deteriorating neighborhood. How does a church be for the neighborhood while also resisting the deteriorating trend of its location? What are the forces at work in our neighborhood (and throughout the city) that shape the lives of its citizens? And what are churches to do about it?

Winters contends that the core ministry of the church is one of reconciliation (taking a cue from St. Paul in a letter of his to the Christ-followers in the totally fractured city of Corinth). I resonate with that theme of reconciliation as being a crucial element of what constitutes the worth of a church in its neighborhood. But how deep and how far does the reconciliation need to go? Reconciliation not only with God and other Christians, but reconciliation with other races, with those in a different class of society, with those of a different colored collar?

The metropolis, where the masses of Americans now live, dominates the life and culture of the United States. Dr. Winter's analysis shows that Protestantism has not shaped itself to meet the challenges. The inner city, deserted by the churches, grows more desperate under pressure of poverty, crime, and racial discrimination. Suburban churches, preoccupied by the concerns of middle-class domesticity, fail to deal with the total context of their constiuents' lives.

"The choice confronting the churches today is whether to continue ministering to fragments of a society or to reform their ministry in order to participate in the whole life of the metropolis."

This new knowledge is going to take a while to work its way through me, but already there are some important implications that come to mind for Anchor's future ministry:
* first - connect with as many other churches as possible within our neighborhood and in the suburbs.
* second - push the work of reconciliation further, not just for marriages and in parenting, but between races, between classes of people, for criminals, for the impoverished, the mentally disabled, the elderly.
* third - daily trust God as we walk in the Same Spirit as Jesus to do and be good news to the deteriorating city - both downtown and in the suburbs.
* fourth - research, research, research; get wisdom; deal with reality of situation for people, individuals, churches, cities, economic forces, cultural powers, metropolitan currents.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ireland: A Story...

Ireland holds a certain kind of fascination for me. Like a lot of my friends, it's one of those countries on my list I want to journey through someday. Plus, it's the homeland of U2! With an interest in the nation, I read the novel Trinity by Leon Uris about Ireland's struggle for freedom in the years leading up to 1916.

It's not a short novel - 894 pages; and it doesn't read quickly - because it so thought-provoking and disturbing. It's taken about nine months to work my way through the story. I doubt I'll look at politics, religion, economics, war, and poverty in the same way again.

Some thoughts:
The British disdain for the Irish is indefensible.
The hatred fueled by the religious fervor of Protestants and Catholics was disillusioning.
The capitulation of Catholic hierarchy to the unjust policies of the Protestant British politicians was disgraceful.
The poverty of Ireland - a situation sustained by the calculating policies of entrenched British Protestant industrialists was demeaning.
With the failure of peaceful political process, with the irrelevance of religious authority, with the lack of profitable labor, what other recourse was there than violence?
Conservative politics was leveraged to protect the interests of those already in power, of the industrialists, those with land and titles, those with military and government authority.
Liberal politics was resistance to the abuse of conservative politics, it was insistence on justice and freedom for all people - especially the poor, the disenfranchised, the abused, the neglected, the oppressed.
And the Church was often a defender of conservative politics.
Without the Church insisting and working to work out a way for peace to prevail, the myth of redemptive violence gains strength.

U2's yearning for peace in Ireland, so hauntingly captured in Sunday Bloody Sunday came to my mind many times as I worked my way through this story of Ireland. And "40".

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What is the Greatest Threat to Christianity?

You would think that atheism is the greatest threat to Christianity. It's not a threat at all.
What about secular humanism? No threat whatsoever.
Agnosticism? Nope.

A materialistic/scientific worldview? Not a threat to Christianity.
Surely socialism is the greatest threat to Christianity! No it is not.
How about Communism? No.
Capitalism? No...
How about evil dictators? No.
Not even corrupt constitutional republican democracies are a threat to Christianity.

If you think that any of these are grave threats to Christianity, then you may have too-low view of Christ's creative capabilities to further his redemptive work in the world.

However, as one observes the world, particularly America, there are two things that currently seem to be the greatest global threat to Christianity. Political power and material wealth. Christ was regularly rejected the most by those with vested interest in either maintaining or gaining political power. Actually, they ended up killing him because he wouldn't shut up. And Jesus went out of his way to point out the obstacle that material wealth would become to those who wanted to follow his Way.

World history will usually show that where there are great centers of political power, Christianity will quickly be co-opted and become a force for oppression and reinforcement elitist rules. And where Christianity becomes a tool for accumulating material wealth, that kind of Christianity will become impotent and useless to resist injustice towards widows and mercy towards sinners.

In light of what Jesus says about himself, about his Way, about his Work in his world, he kind of goes out of his way to emphasize the role of servanthood and salvation, blessing and binding up the wounds.

Jesus knew all about hardwork, being a craftsman he was familiar with the daily exertion of shaping stone, of carving wood, of chiseling marble, of drawing the plumb line. He worked in collaboration with his family to care for each other and their neighbors. And when he walked away from his life as a craftsman to fulfill his role as a prophet - he drew around him people of wealth who were inspired to become generous to the poor, the widow, the crippled, the prisoner. At one point gives assurance: you'll know heaven is your home, you'll know you trust me for salvation if you're giving fresh water to the weary.

So, for all the Christians in America who live in fear of indoctrination, of fear that socialism will ruin our country, in fear of what gay-marriage will do to the institution of marriage, in fear of how we are losing our way morally. I say this: Fear Not. God is still with us.

Jesus is present - the Same Spirit that came upon Him in his day is the Same Spirit that is upon us in our day. It matters not how politically corrupt our country is - it is no obstacle for Christianity unless Christianity has wedded itself to political power as a means to further its work. Material wealth is no obstacle for Christianity unless Christianity has become a means to attain more material wealth at the expense of being a servant of God like Jesus, a healer like Jesus, a rescuer like Jesus, a wisdom-teacher like Jesus, a rebel like Jesus, a kingdom-come kind of believer like Jesus.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 9.27.09

What weighs down your heart?

It doesn't take long for us to realize how hard life can be, how harsh it can be. There's not much we can do about it - it's just the way the world is. And our response to this hardness, this harshness is what often contributes to a weighed-down heart.

How do people typically deal with the hard harshness of life? Some people are partyers, they live for the weekends. Wild-living is their way of reacting to a hard life. Some people become drunks and addicts - they seek to escape the harshness of life through a bottle or a needle or porn. And others become anxious, depressed, worried, listless - life's hardness prompts all sorts of fears in them. And maybe you can add to this general list - there are lots of ways for life's harshness to break people down, to weigh down their hearts, to bury their souls.

Jesus is very much aware of how hard and harsh life can be. And in this instruction to his disciples, he's trying to prepare them for coming events - preparing them to respond to harsh hardness in a way that elevates the heart, not way it down.

Here's the scenario: Jesus has come to Jerusalem as it's rightful king; he's spent the last year or so traveling to the city - healing people, feeding them, instructing them, caring for them. He's done nothing but good, spoke truth to power, empowered the marginalized, infused dignity into the down-and-out. He's poured out into his people only love.

But being wise, brilliant, discerning, etc. he also can see where political, economic, religious forces are sweeping his city. Despite Jesus' work in Israel, he can forsee the day - within a generation - when Rome will send in the siege-works to demolish Jerusalem. The people Jesus sought to save will pick up the sword against Rome, will rebel against the Empire, will call for blood - and it will be their doom. It is breaks the heart of Jesus - these are his people, his kingdom, and they are headed for desolation.

However - many people have listened to Jesus, they have come to trust him, they believe what he says about reality, and they are willing to follow his way of living in this hard and harsh world. So Jesus gives them instructions on how to endure the next generation, and how to survive the siege of Jerusalem when it happens. Jesus' followers will have to deal with persecution because of their allegiance to Jesus and their compassion for others. And when Rome comes to strike down the rebels, Jesus tells his followers to flee - head for the hills.

But Jesus cautions his followers - the next decades will not be easy; be careful or your hearts will get weighed down with the hard reality of life. Beware of dissipation - of debauchary, of wild living. Beware of drunkeness. Beware of anxiety. When life is harsh, respond in love. When life is hard, respond in trust. Love your enemies. Trust the way of God.

For us - we have maybe confessed trust in God, received forgiveness of our sins through Jesus, but still have a weighed down heart. We maybe deal with the harshness of life through occasional partying, or with some kind of addiction, or with anxiety. When we become aware of how we are responding destructively to the hardness of life - instead of condemning ourselves, it can be a wake up call.

Do you want to give up the party life? Do you want to give up the addictions? Do you want to give up the anxiety and depression? Then take your weighed-down heart and give more of it to God. Talk through with Him what is making your heart heavy - and be as honest and probing as you can. Do everything in your power to get wisdom on what is really going on. Do what it takes to get help and strength to keep hoping and trusting the way of Jesus.

There is nothing wrong with having a weighed-down heart; it's what you do with it that can either force you further along the path of desolation or open up a new opportunity for redemption and restoration.

It's your choice... everyday it's your choice. Choose the way of Jesus everyday.

Sunday Sermon Notes 9.20.09

Would you rule the world any different?

If all of a sudden you were bumped up another notch in the management chain of where you work - now you're given more authority and more responsibilities - would you be any different (any better?) than the person you just replaced?

It comes pretty natural to us to complain about whoever is the "boss" of us at work. It's easy to point out the things we'd do different if we were in charge. But what if you actually were given the chance to be in charge - would you do a better job at spending the money, making the schedule, handling conflict, giving promotions, handing out discipline, hiring and firing, etc?

Sometimes we like to think that if just given a chance, if just given some more authority, some more responsibilities, we could really make a difference in our workplace (or church, or whatever organization you are part of). We like to think that we could do a better job than "those" already in charge, and if we just had a shot at it, we could really make a difference.

But what about right now? What about the authority and responsibilities you do have now? What are you doing with the power and influence you do have for good and for God? Maybe the real issue is not what you would do with more power and influence, authority and power, but what you are doing right now with what you do have. If you're not doing much with what you have right now, what makes you think you'd do a better job with more?

You have authority over you - and you are responsible for yourself. How are you doing with that authority and responsibility - are you using yourself for good and for God now in a purposeful, meaningful way? You have power and influence over members of your family, over your friends, over your coworkers, over your neighbors, etc. How are you using that power and influence for good and for God? Are you working to be a blessing to them, or are you usually trying to find a way to use them for your own gain?

Jesus, in the three stories recorded back to back to back in Luke, are attempts by Jesus to point out how the religious and economic leaders of the nation were misusing their authority and responsibilities, their power and influence. He then makes a point to reveal how he uses his authority and responsibility, his power and influence. Who do you want to emulate?

The religious authorities use the Scriptures to support their nationalistic and violent desires for independence from Rome. Jesus undermines both their interpretation and their authority (and thus their power and influence). The religious leaders are also very much involved in the economy of the nation. They also seek honor, to climb the social-status ladder, and to gain prestige. Jesus reveals these arrogant and greedy motives for what they are - that is not how leaders are to use their authority and responsibilities.

And then Jesus points out the contrast between what the wealthy give to God and what a poor widow gives to God. The rich give out of their abundance - a strategic move, calculated to not hurt their bottomline. The widow gave everything she had, revealing her trust in God's willingness to provide for her. God wants leaders to use their authority and responsibility to lift up the widows, not devour their houses. God wants everyone to use their power and influence for the good of their neighbors and for God.

Whatever you have - give it all over for the work of God in this world. Don't make everything about you. Make a difference for good and for God in your world with the authority and responsibilities you currently have. It's more than enough.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Word Alone

Impatience and self-reproach only foster our complacency and entangle us ever more deeply in the net of self-centered introspection.

But there is no more time to observe ourselves in meditation than there is in the Christian life as a whole. We should pay attention to the Word alone and leave it to the Word to deal effectively with everything.

For may it not be the case that it is none other than God who sends us these hours of emptiness and dryness, so that we might once again expect everything from God's Word?

"Seek God, not happiness" - that is the fundamental rule of all meditation. If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness - that is the promise of all meditation.

- from Life Together 88-89

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dwelling On God's Word

It is not necessary for us to find new ideas in our meditation. Often that only distracts us and satisfies our vanity.

It is perfectly sufficient if the Word enters in and dwells within us as we read and understand it.

As Mary " her heart" what the shepherds told her (Luke 2v19), as a person's words often stick in our mind for a long time - as they dwell and work within us, preoccupy us, disturb us, or make us happy without our being able to do anything about it - so as we meditate, God's Word desires to enter in and stay with us. It desires to move us, to work in us, and to make such an impression on us that the whole day long we will not get away from it.

Then it will do its work in us, often without our being aware of it.

~ from Life Together 88

Monday, September 14, 2009

U2 TnT Chicago Friends

Saturday morning Reena and Phil drove over to our place around 10amish, Tara and I said goodbyes to the boys (and a tearful farewell from Emma...), and we were off for Chicago! We checked into our Hyatt hotel and admired our view of the Chicago lakeside.

Here you can see Soldier Field - the orange pointy thing sticking up is part of the stage for the concert. From this perspective it's hard to imagine what kind of stage we're looking at.

After we finished admiring our view, the four of us headed out for a loooooooong walk down Michigan Avenue. It was a beautiful day...we decided to not let it get away!. Our hotel was by the McCormick Center, and our goal was to walk to the Hancock Tower.
We had miles to go in our sandals. Tara - God bless her - wanted to find a Starbucks. Somehow I got photographed in front of the store!

Reena, Tara and me - Phil is the photographer!

We were getting very hungry - and we wanted to find a local restaurant. No national-chain restaurants. Being adventurous, we wanted to find something interesting. We saw a sign for some Louisiana fare - and went for it.
Always cool when you have to ride an escalator up to the restaurant.

Phil and Reena are famous for their affection of habaneros. Here's one stuffed with cheese, deep fried and served with a dare: no customer has ever finished one! Not being ones to pass on a dare, our neighbors carefully dived in. Alas, the habanero won! Reena explained about the membranes of the pepper being the source of their evilness (I mean hotness...). Tara and I stuck to something safe - crabcakes. Not picture worthy, but yummy.

After our fantastic bayou-feast, we waddled over to a shopping center. Then a tour of the John Hancock Building - what a view...of the Lake! Stupid clouds hovered right around the windows facing the city and all the cool stuff. What a gip. Oh well, it was neat being 91 stories up above the earth! After our descent we stuffed ourselves into a taxi - no way we were walking back to the hotel. We relaxed for a bit, put our feet up, watched some football, and then walked over to the stadium. My oh my - what a place! Soldier Field is impressive. And so were the U2 wares being hawked. Of course I had to get a program, both Tara and I got some sweet shirts!

Snow Patrol opened for U2. They were okay. For whatever reason, we sat around for almost an hour (or so it seemed...) for the stage to get resent. Lots of time to be over-awed by the stage. And to take pictures of ourselves waiting. And smiling!

The show is finally getting ready to start! First smoke, then the showmen, and then the music! Interestingly, they started off with Breathe. No Line on the Horizon followed. What great stuff!

Tara and I were particularly thrilled by their rousing concert version
of Get On Your Boots and Magnificent.

For the song Unknown Caller, they were nice enough to put words up on the screen to sing along with. Of course this was overkill, since most people were singing along to all the songs anyway. But it was a nice touch. Except for me - I've listened to U2's songs hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times...and I still don't know many of their lyrics. I'm terrible at remembering those kinds of things.

Bono insisted I shout, which I enthusiastically complied. Oh the joy...

By my face I'm guessing we were singing It's a Beautiful Day (I know part of the chorus...), or we were singing Elevation (again, a bit more of the chorus on that one), or maybe it was Vertigo ( ability to sing along on that song...). However, I can sing along to almost all the words to I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - my favorite one of them all.

Adam Clayton driving the songs forward with his brilliant bass playing.

Larry Mullen Jr on the big screen.
The Edge.
Did you notice the screen - the impression is that it's not that good of the screen 'cause you can see all these lines throughout the images. Well, later on they do something amazing with the screen... these guys are so impressive!

The expanding screen.
Look at that screen all stretched out! How cool is that?

The concert is winding down - I have no idea what song is being performed here - maybe it was With or Without You - which he ended by tagging on a few lines of 40. Or maybe this was the acoustic set of Stuck in a Moment (a beautiful song done live acoustic).

What? All done? Already? Please...keep singing...
No? Alas, I guess I'll just have to come back another time!

Hanging out after the concert - enjoying the moment.
Phil and me marveling at how amazing these Irishmen are when it comes to performance and music and inspiring...

Reena and Tara were movin' and a groovin' to the music all night! And why not, U2 music was made to get your hands up and your feet jumping!

Four very happy friends. One joy-full show!