27 September 2011

all a's

yesterday i had a great day off.  after a wonderful breakfast, i went to the cinema for a double feature: moneyball and drive.  drive i knew nothing about, except that after seeing crazy stupid love i became a ryan gosling fan; moneyball, on the other hand, was a book by michael lewis, which i read several years ago.  as a baseball junkie, i was fascinated by the idea that baseball could be remarkably predictable: formulas and calculations, not the physical or psychological cliches we hear about during every game, would determine which players were successful.

after the 2001 season, the a's lost some key players to richer teams.  they decided to overhaul their system of player evaluation and development.  they wanted players to walk more-- on base percentage (obp) was their most important statistic, not home runs or batting average.  they were not interested in avoiding errors (the book argues against the use of the term "error"-- why does a moral term like that belong in a sport?).  no bunting-- that's giving away outs.  no stealing-- the risk of getting an out is not worth the reward of getting to second base.  if the guy hitting behind you walks you'll end up there anyway.  and let's put an end to useless stats like batting average with two out (there's no statistical reality to the cliche known as "clutch hitting").

i read a review of moneyball written by keith law, a baseball guy.  he calls the movie a "mess"-- but he writes about it from the perspective of a baseball guy, not a moviegoer.  he points out no general manager would fly to another city to discuss a possible trade, and of course he's right.  it would be over their third arms, their mobile phones.  but that meeting in the movie does not take place to discuss a possible trade-- it's to introduce the a's g.m. to an analyst for the indians.  this guy later becomes the a's assistant g.m., and the architect of the new philosophy.  in other words, the whole meeting is a plot device.  it doesn't matter if it would actually happen that way.  law also does not like the way scouts are portrayed, certain players, etc.  but this is not a documentary, and it's not even really a baseball movie-- unlike, say field of dreams or bull durham or the natural.  to review the movie as not understanding baseball culture correctly is to miss the point.

as i watched moneyball, i was reminded of the social network (same writer-- aaron sorkin).  for one thing, my initial reaction to both films was the same: why are they making this into a movie again? facebook is a good thing and everyone loves it, but do we need to know mark zuckerberg better?  moneyball is an interesting way to dig deeper into baseball, but is it a movie-worthy story?  people reacted similarly to the social network as keith law did to moneyball.  what it says about zuckerberg or any other character was not accurate.  but that's not what we have movies for, is it?  we're looking for a story.  the social network was great not because it was a biography-- it was interesting because the guy the film suggests is socially awkward (doesn't matter if he really is or not-- it's a movie) created a network for people to be more social.  moneyball isn't about the sport of baseball as much as it is the thinking behind it.  and the man behind the machine.

billy beane was then, and still is today, the a's general manager.  he is a former major league baseball player. in the film he relives the moment he signed his big league contract over and over again.  we see pictures of him as a kid in a baseball uniform over and over.  he craves solitude.  he refuses to watch the team play.  he constantly eats and exercises.  he is a classic "type a" personality.  he is devoted to his daughter.  the more you get to know the guy, the more a movie makes sense.  he is a visionary.  he has to adapt to financial constraints that do not exist for other teams. the oakland a's 2002 payroll was under $40 million, compared to the Yankees' of $140 million, but they still made the playoffs. in fact, the team won one more game with the cheaper players. this year the a's payroll is $65 million, 21st among the 30 mlb teams.  they'll finish the season, which ends tomorrow, 73-89 give or take a win or two, in third place.  they have not made the playoffs since 2006.  while it is true the a's have not won a world series under the moneyball philosophy, the boston red sox, who hired the guru of modern baseball statistical analysis, bill james, years ago, won titles in 2004 and 2007.  they still have a pulse for the final playoff spot with two games to play.

as a rangers fan, i could not be more excited and impressed with the team's performance the last two years.  last season they made the world series but lost; this weekend they begin another playoff run.  they've done this without an enormous payroll: $91 million, which ranks 13th out of 30th.  ten years ago, the rangers payroll was higher than that-- yet they lost every year. the rangers, now under new leadership, have adopted some of these processes, but not others.  ron washington, the rangers' manager, was the third base coach for the a's during the moneyball years (he's in the movie, always referred to as "wash").  but washington gives his players free reign on base stealing, and calls on them to bunt often.  personally i agree with moneyball's stance here.  bunting is rarely effective, and basestealing, while exciting, has significant risk to it.

the movie is excellent.  brad pitt, who produced the film as well as stars in it, is great.  it's funny, witty, and thought provoking, even if you're not a baseball fan.  it was very absorbing.  many people in the auditorium  cheered as the a's won their record 20th straight game in the '02 season.  i have always been attracted to visionary type people, who reinvent the system in new, challenging, sometimes threatening ways.  billy beane is certainly that. if i weren't a rangers fan and the a's were not our rivals, i would root for beane to get his ring.

22 September 2011

Oak Lawn Vision Quiz

We’re beginning a process for establishing a new vision for Oak Lawn—how appropriate as we gather this Sunday to celebrate 137 years of ministry!  As an act of worship today we will complete a brief survey together.  Next week members of our Church Council will host listening sessions, where members and friends of Oak Lawn can come together for a time of sharing hopes and dreams.  There are also opportunities for online discussions.  Check out our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/OLUMC, follow me on Twitter: @revdrfd3, or post to my blog: www.pastorfrank.blogspot.com. Part of the vision process is knowing what is going on in our community.  Based on some demographic information offered through the North Texas Conference (brought to my attention by Joan Wu and Patrick Aunkst), here’s a quiz:

Which group will grow between today and 2015: Those with less than a ninth grade education, or those with a college education?

By 2015, most households in 75219 will have an income of:
a.       Less than $20,000
b.      $50,000-75,000
c.       $100,000-125,000
d.      $200,000+

Households by size (number of people in a home) will increase or decrease over the next three years?

Asians represent approximately 4 ½ percent of 75219.  What is the largest group?
a.       Vietnamese
b.      Chinese (non Taiwanese)
c.       Filipino
d.      Japanese

What percentage work from home?
a.       1
b.      2
c.       5
d.      10

Which population will increase by 2015?
a.       African Americans
b.      Asians
c.       Hispanics
d.      All of the above

Each of these trends—and there are a bunch more—represents exciting, new ministry opportunities for us.  I am very proud and excited to be a part of Oak Lawn UMC’s efforts to re-vision and reach more people for Jesus Christ!

Answers: College; D; decrease; A; C; D

13 September 2011

Swords into Plowshares

“Where were you on September 11?”  I don’t know how many times I have heard or seen that question asked over the past couple of weeks.  Most of us can say exactly where we are when we heard the news of the attacks on our country.  Christy and I were in our apartment on Henderson Avenue getting ready for work.  We were watching the Today show, which was rare for me.  We watched live, as most of here and billions around the world did, as the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  We were horrified, unsure what to do next.  She drove to her job, near SMU, and I drove here, where I served as Associate Pastor.  I remember driving along Turtle Creek listening to the radio and worrying about Dallas being attacked.  It was doubly terrifying for me—Christy and I had just learned the day before, September 10, that she was pregnant with our first child, James.  Throughout the day I struggled with guilt, watching and reading of great human suffering, while at the same time feeling joy about our own news.

When I arrived at the church, most of the staff was gathered in Wyndal’s office, where the TV was tuned in to ABC’s coverage.  Peter Jennings gave updates as they came available.  There was chaos all over the country, no one knew what was happening, what the extent of the attacks would be, what the next days would look like.  We began to think: how should we respond as a church?  We hastily organized a prayer service for that night.  I went to my office and began sending out emails to every person I knew and asked them to forward it on.  That night we gathered in this sacred space to pray.  We were angry, confused, worried, vulnerable.  We prayed for our country, its leaders, its people.  We lifted up emergency workers in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania.  We thought of hundreds of Dallas folks who turned out to donate blood, seeking any way to offer help.

President Bush called for a time of national prayer Friday, September 14 at noon.  Russ and I put together a service of prayer and healing.  The Sanctuary was absolutely packed with people from the neighborhood on their lunch hour, many of whom without a church home.  I remember walking to that pulpit with a profound feeling of inadequacy.  I had no words to explain God’s will in this act of evil.  I knew folk were struggling with existential questions of why God would allow such a thing, where was God, what had we done to deserve this.  All I could think to offer were psalms of lament, the great tradition of laying out all our hurt and anguish before God in a desperate act of prayer and trust.  So I read words from a psalm.  And Russ played music.  And I read more.  And Russ played more.  And somehow it worked, as far as I know.  Maybe some of you here today attended one of those services.

A couple of weeks ago I sat with ten other pastors and we discussed what we were doing in worship today.  One person said for much of her congregation she wasn’t sure it would be meaningful to commemorate September 11 at all, they are so busy with their own lives and needs.  For those churches who do decide to have an observance this day, there will be a wide variety of offerings.  Some will speak of national pride and patriotism.  Others will repent of warmongering as a way of expressing grief and anger.  We chose to offer a more meditative approach with music and prayer.  It is interesting that the two texts we read for this service, Matthew 18 and Exodus 15, are assigned for this Sunday—not because of 9/11 but those texts are to be read this particular Sunday of the year, the Sunday between September 11 and 17, every third year.  I rarely use the Lectionary myself, but with a special service like this I turned there first weeks ago as I began to pray about today.  And I was astounded to find Jesus’ preaching about forgiveness transposed with the Hebrews’ songs of celebration as their enemies are defeated.

There has been much talk about the role of religion in America since 9/11. We have seen growth in interfaith observances and understanding by some.  At the same time we have seen a distinctly American Protestant form of Christian patriotism by others—we are a Christian nation.  We sing God Bless America with a little more pride.   We speak of ourselves as good and our enemies as evil.  We believe that because we are special God is on our side.  The Exodus text speaks directly to this reality.  One commentator urged churches to edit the Exodus text if they used it at all so worshipers would not think God still hates the Egyptians, but that’s ridiculous, and I’ll give you more credit than this guy did.  A first impression of this text reeks of triumphalism, the idea that God favors one side over the other in a conflict.  God saved the Hebrews by dividing the Red Sea and the people crossed.  When Pharaoh’s army followed through the walls of water, God brought the waters down, drowning the Egyptian forces.  And the Hebrews sang and celebrated.  God brought us victory!  Yes, they see God’s hand in their victory: Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.  In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew our adversaries; you sent your fury, it consumed them like stubble.  And so on.  When things work the way we need them to, it is easy to see God as on our side. 

Ten years ago today, most people wanted vengeance, not forgiveness.  We were hurt.  We were scared.  We were vulnerable.  Americans do not like feeling this way.  We had to respond swiftly and powerfully—sending a strong message to those who would hurt us.  On Friday as I prepared for this message I watched a clip from David Letterman’s show from September 17, 2001 on YouTube.  It was The Late Show’s first episode since the attacks and Dave was obviously upset, struggling with the same feelings of inadequacy as I did here in this pulpit and so many others with public responsibility felt in that first week.  After several minutes he invited Dan Rather to speak about the attacks and he wanted to know why we had not yet responded.  When were we going to get in there—Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, wherever—and get even with Osama Bin Laden and the others who perpetrated such evil against us.  I felt the same thing, and I am sure most of us here did too.  Some people even took that need for vengeance to horrific extremes.

Weeks after the attacks, Mark Stroman entered a convenience store in Dallas.  He shot three men he believed were Muslims, two of whom died.  The third man, Rais Bhuiyan, survived, despite being shot in the face at close range.  He is blind in one eye today.  Mr. Stroman was arrested and charged with capital murder.  He was found guilty and was sentenced to death.  The execution was scheduled to take place earlier this summer.  An amazing thing was happening as the usual appeals process was going on.  The man Stroman injured for life, Mr. Bhuiyan, mounted an aggressive campaign to stop the execution.  He had forgiven Stroman, as he understood his religion Islam commanded:  “I decided that forgiveness was not enough. That what he did was out of ignorance. I decided I had to do something to save this person’s life. That killing someone in Dallas is not an answer for what happened on Sept. 11.  He did not want his state to return violence for violence.  All the appeals, legal and otherwise, failed.  Stroman was executed July 20.

Our country has fought two wars, first in Afghanistan and two years later in Iraq, because of 9/11. Ten years later we are still fighting in both places, the longest ongoing war our nation has ever fought.  Thousands of American lives are lost, countless thousands of civilian lives were lost, families shattered, and for what?  Please do not hear this as a criticism of our military folk who make such profound sacrifices—I have incredible respect for them and honor their service.  It took us ten years, but the first of May we learned that we got Bin Laden.  We’ve heard of other 9/11 masterminds killed over the years.  Does that make us feel better, help ease the burden of grief?  I am not sure it does.  In our emotional rush to respond, we did not think to turn to the teachings of Jesus.  Peter asks Jesus a question that perhaps we should have asked in those prayer services here at Oak Lawn that first week after the attacks: “If someone else hurts me, how many times should I forgive?  Seven times?”  Seven is a good number, right? Lucky number 7?  It’s a minimum standard.  If Peter was a negotiator, he would always low-ball people.  But Jesus sets the bar incredibly high: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or, as others translate it: “Seventy times seven times.”  Whoa.  What if, in the days after 9/11, instead of singing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…” we sang, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace”?  What if, instead of searching the scriptures to justify our need for retribution we read, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)”? 

We are all still hurting from that horrible day ten years ago.  Some of us still cry out for vengeance.  Some of us still look at others who are different with suspicion.  We have tried to make ourselves feel more secure, more in control, more the masters of our own destiny.  As we do so often, whether in our personal lives or as a community, we have drawn ourselves inward thinking it is a safer place to be.  And that we can reclaim some of the “no one can get at us” mentality most of us shared September 10th.  But if God is on our side, doesn’t that mean God must be against others? Bishop Will Willimon has said that in the days after 9/11 America missed a great spiritual opportunity.  In our need to respond to our hurt, we wrapped ourselves in the flag instead of grasping the cross. The Exodus text begins with a “God is on our side!” and we could easily transfer that feeling to Iraq or Afghanistan or terrorism or anywhere else evil lives.  But the Hebrews quickly moved on from triumphalism to a celebration of the faithfulness of God, meaning they realized that in the defeat of the Egyptians they were now truly a free people with a future for the first time.  They really were no longer tied to their past of oppression and bondage.  That reality brought such joy that they danced: The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. 

Exodus 15 ends with Miriam’s tambourine making joyful sounds to God: “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!”  You know what happened next?  A few days later the people complained about drinking bitter water.  God freshened the water.  Then they complained about being hungry.  God sent them manna.  Then they complained because it was manna every day.  As they moved further and further away from the Red Sea, they forgot the faithfulness of God.  The people were unchanged by such dramatic events.  Eventually they crossed another body of water, the Jordan River, and entered the Promised Land.  God delivered on the promise given to Abraham long ago.  Over the next centuries the nation of Israel flourished, until it was overrun by other, more powerful nations, and the Israelites lost everything.  For generations they lived under bondage, longing for the day when they would return to freedom.  They took responsibility for their actions, not blaming God for their sufferings.  They hoped for a new day.  A future.  The Book of Micah was written during such a time.  Hear the words of Chapter 4:

In days to come  the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.

There are two predominant clich├ęs about 9/11: that America was brought into the global community in a new way, realizing we were not impervious to terrorism, and that we have been changed forever.  I wonder how true that is.  How much has the life of the average person changed as a result of 9/11?  We have more inconveniences to deal with, particularly at the airport, where ID must be presented over and over again.  Maybe there’s a lesson there: the ID confirms who we are—our identity.  But do we really know who we are?  Are we still growing in to God’s vision for us as a people?  It took centuries for the Hebrews to realize who they are—and whose they are—and that learning accompanied a tremendous amount of hurt, loss, and anxiety.  Maybe 9/11 revealed a hidden need for wholeness in our communities.  Maybe the attacks on our country and the subsequent wars revealed a need for the sacred in our national character. 

Ten years ago I was a 30 year old Associate Pastor and learned I would soon become a father for the first time.  Now I am 40, serving here again, and that kid, James, is a fourth grader.  Ten years ago the Oak Lawn staff gathered around a TV in Wyndal’s office to learn more about what was happening in our country.  Now that office no longer exists as part of our ongoing renovations.  Ten years ago we began conflicts in Afghanistan and later Iraq and our presence is still there.  Ten years ago we gathered in this very sacred space, dealt with our grief, fear, anxiety, inadequacy, need for revenge, and came face to face with reality: without the strength of our faith we were utterly powerless.  Ten years ago God cried with, and for, us.  Just as God cries for human suffering everywhere.

The pain of 9/11 is real and may never go away.  Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Remembering the pain, even the thoughts of rage, can be a source of healing.  Instead of calling for God to be some sort of cosmic bodyguard and defend us from whatever bully is out there, we can call upon God out of our fear and sense of loss to make us a people of hope, peace, and justice.  Instead of returning violence for violence, let’s commit to being a nation that shall lead others to “not learn war anymoreNo one shall be afraid.  We will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.  As followers of Jesus, the one we call Prince of Peace, we must forgive those who hurt us.  How often should I forgive?  Just a little bit?  Enough to get through the day?  Seven times?  No.  seventy-seven times.   And not just a little.  On this 10th anniversary of that horrible day, let us remember the 3000 innocent lives that were taken.  Let us remember the families who grieve.  Let us remember the lives of emergency workers who risked everything to help others.  Let us honor those who fight on our behalf in the military and their families.  Let us remember all the thousands of lives lost because of the evil intentions of a handful of megalomaniacs.  Let us put aside our fear, our hate, and our vengeance. Instead of beating ploughshares into swords, let’s live in to Micah’s vision and beat our swords in ploughshares.  Let's build instruments of creation rather than destruction. Instead of asking, “Where were you on September 11?”, meaning 2001, let’s ask: “Where are you today—September 11, 2011?”  Let us join with Moses and Miriam and those ancient Israelites, who journeyed into a new freedom while singing and dancing: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will exalt him!”  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.