23 December 2013

Mirror, Mirror

Last Thursday was a social media lowpoint for me. News broke about a United Methodist pastor who was defrocked after presiding at his son's wedding (the son is gay, and United Methodist pastors are forbidden from participating in such weddings). On the same day, the cable TV network A&E suspended one of the cast members of Duck Dynasty for inappropriate comments in an interview with GQ magazine.(I'm guessing his picture used to go in the empty space between the others.) Both of these announcements caused Facebook and Twitter to explode with all kinds of angry posts. I wanted to run and hide.

Just this morning I received an email from parishioners resigning their membership in our church because of the denomination's stance on homosexuality. The wedding defrocking was the catalyst, although they admitted that they had not been active members for some time. Since this whole episode has unfolded this Fall, my heart has ached for everyone involved. It's been the reactions-- on either side of the argument-- that have left me exhausted.

And the Duck Dynasty thing has people absolutely losing it. Some defended his freedom of speech; others decried his stances. I have never watched the show, so I can't say much about the actual production, although recent Forbes recently valued the empire at $400 million, so suspended or not the family's doing well. I had all kinds of skeptical questions about the nature of so-called "reality" shows pop into my head (timing, audience manipulation, etc.)-- the article appears in the January issue of GQ, and the show's next season debuts January 15. Let's lay those aside for now.

I chose to refrain from participating in the online vitriol, and I hope this post will be read in that same refrain. What pushed me to the point of retreat was for all the wrangling and hurtful posts to come out the week of Christmas, when our minds ought to be focused on peaceful, hopeful words. For some reason, and I have no idea why, Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror has been in my mind for the last couple of weeks. I haven't heard it on the radio, and it's not included in my MJ iTunes collection, but listen to these words:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror;
I'm asking him to change his ways;
And no message could have been any clearer:
If you want to make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself and make a... change

Facebook and Twitter are great, but sheesh, when we get wired up about things... look out. In the Church we traditionally think of Lent, the six weeks before Easter, as a time of spiritual preparation, and lots of folks stay away from social media during that time to stay clear of clutter of words. There is no reason Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, cannot have the same soul-cleaning preparation. But Advent ends tomorrow night. Here's the good news: Christmas is a twelve day season, not the 12 hours most of us, honestly, attribute to it. Could we mark those twelve days with a decision to use words to only lift up each other? Can we examine ourselves, look into our own mirrors, rather than throwing darts at others?

If we commit today to use holy words for the next two weeks, how much more alive will Christmas be for us? Maybe a push in the right direction are these words, which Christy and I included on our Christmas cards this year: 

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Notice the words "spoke" and "spoken" appear twice in the first verse. Whatever your positions on these two events of the last week, may your words this Christmas be ones that bring healing, peace, and joy. And may those blessings be yours this Christmas and New Year!

08 December 2013

Iced in Worship Opportunity

The last three days in North Texas have nene weather crazy! Which, if you read my post from two weeks ago, is not unusual. This time around the hype was well spent. Our family has been homebound for three days. Thousands have been without power. I have loved reading all the posts from those with power welcoming others into their homes. Churches are doing the same thing. Many churches are closed this morning, including ours at Custer Road. We offer live-streaming worship every Sunday at 9:45, but today Senior Pastor Kory Knott and worship leader Tim Morrison will lead a special online service at 11:00 a.m.- starting in 30 minutes. I have no idea what is planned, but knowing who is involved I am excited. I am grateful to be part of a church with such dedicated, creative folk. So if you are iced in or otherwise unable to physically attend worship this morning, please click here to join us online. Everyone is invited to use the hashtag #CRWorshipAtHome

25 November 2013

Weather the Storm

This weekend promised to be an exciting one. An arctic front blew through Dallas Thursday night, bringing with it the promise of rain, and the possibility of ice, sleet, and/or snow. On Friday, the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning for the North Texas area from Sunday afternoon through Monday. Local news channels sent teams to Lowe’s and Home Depot to interview employees and customers about last minute provisions like covers for outdoor plants. Other crews populated grocery stores, looking for folk stocking up on water, batteries, and canned goods. As a minister, I immediately began to worry about worship attendance. I even asked on Twitter for predictions about Sunday’s weather:

Who's got weather predictions for tomorrow? Obviously every preacher expects sun and no precipitation.
Many colleagues posted status updates on Facebook like this: “It may be cold and yucky outside, but inside it’s warm and dry in church! Come on down!”

So we waited out the storm of anxiety (the actual storm didn’t show up Sunday morning). The Parents of Faith class still had its annual pre-Thanksgiving meal, which Christy, the boys, and I enjoyed very much (thanks again for the invitation, Kathy!). After lunch I walked to the car—it had rained recently and there were ice patches on my grill and mirrors. When I picked up the family we headed home, hoping to beat the freeze. We made it. I encouraged Christy to stay home from her planned study meeting with her classmates. And we waited. It never snowed or iced in our neighborhood. Late in the evening the Winter Storm Warning was downgraded—but there would still be a chance of ice, and some schools delayed opening until 10:00. Even this morning I was still anxious enough that when I woke up at 5:18 to the sound of drops I pulled out the phone to check if Richardson ISD was closed or delayed. Nope. Just another wet, though cold, morning.

Weather adventures are part of the fun of living in Dallas. Our climate can produce thunderstorms in the summer, tornadoes in the spring, and obviously, winter weather in the... well, winter. Or not. Part of the job requirements for on-air TV folk is the ability to pull on a parka or raingear at a moment's notice and hit the streets. Every weather person seems trained to heighten our anxiety (and their excitement) while at the same time hedging bets-- the models may change-- you never know... So I was amused, and somewhat excited, to hear that Matthew, a senior at Custer Road who is planning to attend OU next fall, will study meteorology. I can't wait to follow his career with a combination of anxiety and excitement. His mother told me he first learned the US states with his dad, studying weather patterns across the country in the Metro section of the newspaper. How is that for a sweet mental image this dreary Monday morning?

I am not going after our faithful meteorologists. The math and science involved in weather prediction has to be at a very high level. I am poking fun at our-- my-- need to check the 10-day forecast every hour to make sure nothing strange will happen. Or to amp up our excitement about the possibility of strangeness. And the disappointment this morning when it was just another cold, wet day.

This morning's devotional included this verse from the well-hidden prophet Nahum: "The Lord is good, a haven in a day of distress" (Nahum 1:7).

This week, as Thanksgiving is celebrated, let us be thankful, beyond the stuff we've been provided with, for the constant presence of God in our lives. Weather patterns and predictions will come and go, and may disappoint us by not showing up. So enjoy your Thanksgiving-- and the haven God provides-- regardless of the weather. We'll be in Bay City for a few days-- and according to my weather app, things will be sunny or partly cloudy, cool or warm.

19 November 2013

Gravitational Pull

The other day I saw Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I was very nervous at the beginning, because the 3D animation was so realistic-- I thought I would be pushed beyond my virtual reality threshold-- and that is VERY low. But after a few minutes I knew I would be OK. 90 minutes later I was exhausted, emotionally and spiritually. I will not get in to plot details or spoiler alerts here. I'm not even going to review the movie, although I thought it was very good. I want to think about one particular moment in the film, which I thought really revealed what the movie's main theme was. To set it up, after a very challenging space walk, Sandra Bullock's character is out of oxygen. She just barely gets into the space station airlock and releases the air inside. She spends a few moment weightlessly floating in a circle, breathing in and out. The she holds this pose:

Now compare that image to this one:

The space station is a womb for her. It's the place where she reclaims life.

There's a big message there for Christians, and I thought of it while I saw Sandra Bullock hold the pose. Jesus was visited at night by one of the religious authorities, Nicodemus, who was curious. He and the others had heard of what Jesus was doing and teaching, and he proactively sought Jesus out to learn more. Jesus did not see this encounter as an opportunity for debate, but as another way to extend his reach. Jesus' mission was to save as many folk as possible. So he says to Nicodemus, "Unless someone is born anew, it's not possible to see God's kingdom" (John 3:3). Nicodemus misunderstands: "It's impossible to enter the mother's womb for a second time and be born, isn't it?" (John 3:4). No, says Jesus. But he doesn't give up: "...everyone who believes in [God's Son] will have eternal life" (John 3:15).

So faith in Jesus is the womb that leads to renewed life. Just as the space station is the womb that leads to new life for Sandra Bullock's character in the movie.

What are the signs that we are slipping into critical stages spiritually? I can think of several:
1. Lack of intimacy in our relationships. How would you describe your relationships with your significant other, children, close friends? Are they healthy or non-existent?
2. Burnout in ministry. Are you so busy that you are not fulfilled in your service to others? I see lots of Facebook posts from clergy friends about "successful" days. What the heck does that mean, anyway? How do you determine success in ministry?
3. Absence of joy. The Christian life ought to be a wellspring of new life within us. But when we are overloaded with outside concerns our spiritual life is usually the first to suffer.

There are tons more, and I am fairly sure I have exhibited just about all of them over 20+ years of ministry. The good news is that the airlock is within reach, and there are no objects raining down upon us, making the stretch nearly impossible. And the really good news is that getting into the airlock, where safety is real and restoration is possible, is not dependent on our own strength anyway. Christ is there, awaiting our return, pulling us back into relationship-- just as gravity holds us down and prevents us from flying away.

So may you find nurture and renewal in the loving arms of Christ. May you re-enter that womb and receive the life sustaining energy-- and breath-- you need to live as a faithful disciple.

Take deep breaths. And linger in that moment as long as necessary.

05 November 2013

The Circle Is Now Complete

Last Sunday everyone studied the same material in Custer Road's small groups and Sunday schools: a stewardship lesson I wrote on Paul's use of the word charis in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9. Here are some highlights from that lesson, as well as a real world example of life application. Central to the lesson is the idea of reciprocity. In Paul's world, as well as our own, this was an important concept. You do something for me, I do something for you. From a Christian perspective it's God does something for us, we do something for others. Reciprocity.

In 2 Corinthians Chapter 8 and 9, Paul gives us some of the New Testament’s most profound teachings on generosity and giving. One of his goals in ministry is to honor the legacy of the Jerusalem church, founded by the original apostles, who empowered him to be an apostle. Paul’s ministry was focused on Gentiles (non-Jews), while the ministry of the original apostles was primarily focused on Jews in and around Jerusalem. So Paul encouraged his fledgling congregations to contribute to a “generous undertaking” (2 Cor 8:6) for the Jerusalem mission. Some of his smaller, less affluent churches had already contributed—but the Corinthians, a larger and wealthier group, had not yet joined. Paul uses the Greek word charis, usually translated “grace,” throughout his plea to motivate the Corinthians to increase their generosity. Paul uses charis in Chapters 8 & 9 several times. Briefly read each verse and search for the word. It is variously translated as “grace,” “generous undertaking,” “privilege,” generous act,” “thanks be to God,” “blessing,” and “thanks” (2 Corinthians 8:1,4,6,7,9,16,19; 9:8,14,15). Let's rewrite the text using grace for charis each time. And look for the theme of reciprocity.

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the grace of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this grace among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this grace. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

But grace be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same eagerness for you that I myself have. For he not only accepted our appeal, but since he is more eager than ever, he is going to you of his own accord. With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news; and not only that, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us while we are administering this grace for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our goodwill.

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every grace in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,
‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness* endures for ever.’
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.* You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Grace be to God for his indescribable grace!

Last week I noticed that my gift to CRUMC was placed in my box, not the Financial Officer's. Hmmm. This presented an occasion for debate: I had given the gift online, yet the check actually came back to me-- a mistake by the volunteer who distributes mail. So was the gift already given in spirit? Could I just tear up the check and think of it as an act of reciprocity? To top all this off, Teresa Stroup, our Financial Analyst who processes checks, and her husband David happened to be in this exact lesson last Sunday. When I mentioned the check sitting on my desk, she said, "Yeah, I haven't seen it." I gave it to her yesterday, I promise.

Preaching and teaching on Christian stewardship isn't a very popular task for the church and its preachers, which is unfortunate, because the Bible spends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to educate us. And yes, worship attendance was down a bit last week. I, for one, love teaching and preaching about stewardship, and I appreciated very much Kory's sermon and leadership in sharing his own experience and understanding of Christian giving. As Paul shows us above, grace not only comes from God, down some sort of cosmic one-way street. He uses charis at least hour different ways to illustrate this:

We receive grace from God (8:1, 9; 9:8, 14)
We are invited to share grace (8:4)
Our gifts become grace for others (8:6, 7, 19)
And we return grace to God as thanks (8:16, 9:15)


24 September 2013

Tacos and a Side of Witness

Yesterday I went to lunch at Taco Bueno. I sat down, unwrapped a taco, said a brief prayer, and tucked in. I noticed there were a ton of high school students there, as well as several adults sitting together near me. I figured the students were on their lunch break, and I assumed the adults were too-- maybe they worked together somewhere in the area. About the time I was wrapping up, one of the adults approached me with a flyer in her hand. "I just felt like I should give this to you," she said. It had several "big" life questions printed on it-- things like, "Does God care that I exist?" "Why do good people suffer?" etc. She explained that she was a Jevovah's Witness and wanted to assure me the Bible contained all the answers to the questions we have. This was a new experience for me. I was just having lunch! And now out of nowhere a stranger is asking me questions about salvation and the Bible.
Does she not see my Custer Road United Methodist Church nametag?
Does she not see the "Rev" in front of my name?
Is she deliberately reaching out to me because I am a United Methodist pastor?

And then:

How do I respond to her? I study the Bible nearly every day for one reason or another; I have all kinds of experience, expertise, and knowledge-- do I just unload on her?
How can I best represent my faith, Custer Road Church, my denomination, and my calling in this conversation?
Will the nametag help, or hinder, my conversation?
Maybe she has a need I can address or help her understand?

She started firing off questions:
"Do you know who is in charge of this world?"
"Do I know? For certain? Well, I believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all, so I would say he is in charge."
"Do you know the story of the temptation of Jesus?"
"Didn't Satan offer him all the kingdoms of earth? How can he do that if he is not in charge?"
"Well, what if the temptation was a lie? What if Satan was trying to trick Jesus into affirming power he did not actually have?"

[confused look.]

"Do you believe we are in the last days?"
"You mean is the world ending?"
"No, I do not believe that."
"You don't? We're seeing school shootings, natural disasters, it's never happened before."
"It has happened throughout history. Evil is part of our existence. Our faith in Christ gives us strength and courage to face the future without fear. Jesus said over and over again, 'Do not be afraid.'"
"But the Bible talks over and over about kingdoms ending and a new kingdom taking its place. Ezekiel/Micah/Revelation..."
"Yeah, but those texts were written about specific kingdoms, and the loss of the nation of Israel. They point to a hopeful future when God will make things right again. And in the case if Israel, it happened."

[confused look.]

"Well, if someone came to you in need of answers what scriptures would you point them to?"
"I usually go to the end of Romans Chapter 8, where Paul assures us that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."

"When you speak to people, do you speak on your own behalf or God's? Do you interpret the scripture or let it speak for itself?"
"I believe God has empowered me to interpret the scripture through my experiences and education. Everyone interprets the scripture. I've listened to you now for about half an hour. You have interpreted the scriptures several times, referring to your Catholic background and how you became a Jevovah's Witness. Your interpretation of scripture caused you to make that decision."

[confused look.]

She smiled and said, "Well, I just wanted you to have [the paper with the questions and a few scriptures]."
"And I am glad to take it, but I reflect on these questions literally on a daily basis, so if you would rather keep it to give to someone else that is OK."
"No, I really want you to have it."

And she left.

A couple of her friends had moved to a nearby to be resource suppliers for her arguments ("I left my Bible in the car-- can you go get it?" "Do you have the other book?") One of them said I was very gracious in the conversation, and that she could tell I was a pastor by the way I had listened to her friend. She said, "We may disagree on a few things but I can tell you are a good person." I thanked her, threw away my trash, and left. I was utterly exhausted-- like I had been to the gym or something.

I have thought about this encounter often over the last 24 hours. Why approach me? Because I was alone? There were a ton of high schoolers there but no one made any effort to speak to them. Do they hang out at this place regularly? For the record, I had Chinese for lunch today, not tacos-- and not because I was afraid of Jehovah's Witnesses. I hope they had a thoughtful approach to evangelism-- that the goal is more about transformed lives by God's grace, rather than more scriptures memorized by more people. I know that among United Methodists evangelism is an extremely rare spiritual gift. Maybe approaching loners eating tacos is not the most effective approach to make disciples, but we need to be out where people are-- rather than waiting for them to come to us. When we encounter people and we are clearly wearing our "Christian team" uniforms, we need to be gracious, loving, and ready: "Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it" (1 Peter 3:15).

22 September 2013

Observations from My First-ever Trip to Aggie

So my friend David (A&M Class of '89) and I traveled to College Station yesterday for A&M/SMU. Christy scored us these tickets courtesy of the Athletics Department at SMU (thanks!). I had been to College Station once in my life-- twenty years ago when I went there for the Social Science Composite test to be certified to teach. I had never been to the A&M campus. Full disclosure: I grew up a UT fan, went to school there for a couple of years, before moving on to Sam Houston State in Huntsville, graduating in '93. I earned a Master's degree from SMU in 1999. Anyway, David and I left Dallas shortly after noon. Kickoff was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. We purchased meal tickets at the SMU Alumni tent for 4:00. Along the way, a three hour drive from Dallas, we talked about several things, one of which is a long-term vision for ministry at Custer Road that I will discuss later-- and I'll owe David some sort of consultation fee for his expertise. On to football. Here are some non-football observations, not necessarily in order of importance, from our trip to Aggie:

1. Park at the mall and ride the shuttle. It's free, there are a ton of shuttles, and they are packed with folks. We got to Kyle Field in about ten minutes, and more importantly, back to the mall and out of town unbelievably quickly. Kudos to everyone on this deal.
2. Aggies are the friendliest fans in the world. They have to be. Now, I was wearing full SMU gear, bright blue and red in a SEA of maroon. I heard more "howdy"s than I can count. One guy in the student center patted me on the shoulder and said, "Welcome to Aggieland." This was almost certainly because they were feeling sorry for me. They knew SMU's chances were close to zero-- I did too, for that matter. I had said to David as we left Dallas that I felt like the animals to be sacrificed before the Day of Atonement.
3. After we left College Station I was pulled over on Highway 30 for speeding-- 68 in a 60. The officer looked about 19 or younger. I thought I was talking to one of my children. It felt really awkward saying "No sir" to such a young guy who asked if I was in a hurry. He asked if we had been to the game:
"How did it go?"
"Well I'm an SMU guy, so pretty bad."
"What was the score? I haven't seen it yet."
"You're on your way back to Dallas?"
"Yes sir." (Awkward again.)
After a few minutes he came back with a warning. Whew. Police in Grimes County are generous and compassionate. Would I have received a ticket if the game was close? Or what if SMU had won?
4. Thankful for a pit stop in Corsicana around 12:30. I was absolutely exhausted. A Starbucks Frappuccino, the absolutely sub-zero temps in the gas station, and a brief walk around the pumps got us home successfully and safely around 1:30 a.m.
5. As I Tweeted this morning, 6:00 AM came awfully early today.
6. Highlight of the trip: As we were walking to the Alumni Tent for dinner, we passed an SMU cheerleader who noticed my shirt. She smiled at me and gave me the SMU sign. Like the guy on Peruna's right in this picture:

I turned to David and said, "That's the first time in my life a cheerleader has acknowledged my existence." You're welcome.

Here are some football thoughts:

1. Gosh were there penalties. SMU totaled 16 penalties for 111 yards; A&M had 13 for 114 yards. They were deadly-- especially for SMU in the first half. Several drives stalled or ruined. This also made the first half last TWO HOURS.
2. Gilbert looked great. 37/62 passing for 310 yards. The % is not good, but he was decisive and locked in. Lots of drops by receivers.
3. A&M missed three extra points. Never seen that. I credit SMU somehow, but I'll admit it's fishy.
4. Manziel may be a knucklehead, but he is a beast. If you know anything about college football this is not news.
5. Two excellent bands. I respected how the A&M fans, accustomed to band excellence, respected the Mustang Band. I loved sitting immediately behind the Best Dressed Band in the Land.
6. Out of the 86,000+ fans there, under 1000 were for the Ponies. But hey, we were pretty loud. Louder than at Ford Field, actually. One woman was screaming, "HOLD "EM!!!" with literally under a minute left and the score 42-13. Rock on.

Pony up, yall.

19 September 2013

Fight the Future

I am a visionary type person. Just yesterday Pastor Kory and I did some initial sermon planning for 2014 and beyond. I loved it. I'm thinking more and more about the long-term of Custer Road. Very excited about that. Rather than dreading their growing up, I spend some time each day thinking about what the boys will be and look like when they are in college. I'm a future guy. But here's the thing: I'm getting tired of the future.

Because in most of our imagining, the future is a bleak, dystopian place. Think of the raging zombie craze. Brad Pitt's World War Z, still available at your local $1 cinema and now available on DVD, tells the story of a virus that changes most of the earth's population to zombies. It's made $500 million worldwide-- his biggest movie ever-- and a sequel-- maybe even two-- are being developed. The Walking Dead, a zombie TV series on AMC (same network as Breaking Bad), scored a then-record for cable viewers with its season three finale: 12.4 million. Season Four starts in October. And a 2015 spinoff series was just announced. We love zombies.

A couple of weeks ago I saw This Is The End, starring a bunch of goofballs. It scored an 84% on the Tomatometer, so I was excited to see it. And I needed a couple of hours of laughs. It did not disappoint. It was raunchy, gross, and funny. More than once I thought, "I am so glad I am not wearing my Custer Road nametag!". These guys are all trapped inside James Franco's house while LA burns around them. There are sinkholes everywhere, fires burn, monsters lurk. One character mentions the possibility of the apocalypse from the Bible. He even pulls out Franco's Bible and reads from Revelation (the character says "Book of Revelations"-- with an S-- sheesh). There are pictures in the Bible that look like some of the monsters roaming the neighborhood. So that must be proof. Early in the movie, when things first begin to happen, Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel are at a store. Blue light shines around some of the patrons, they freeze, and start to slowly ascend to the sky. Sort of like an escalator to heaven. Jay immediately supposes these were good people-- this must be the Rapture, where good people are saved to heaven while the not so good are stuck here. Toward the end of the movie, the others buy in to Jay's Rapture idea and start doing unselfish things, even risking their own lives, to get sucked up to heaven. As James Franco starts to levitate, he teases those beneath him. The blue light immediately goes away and he drops back to the ground.

Now, this is a comedy, not meant to be a theological discourse on Revelation. And I get that. The movie is entertaining if one can stomach all the antics. But this idea that salvation can be earned by being nice to others is untrue. We are saved only by God's grace. And the whole Rapture thing? The word does not even appear in the Bible-- nowhere-- not even in Revelation. It was an idea developed during the 18th century revivalism of America. Somehow through osmosis this notion of Rapture has creeped into our minds and is now accepted as fact. The Left Behind series, which for the record I have neither seen the movies nor read the books, builds on the this concept of Rapture. And, by the way, a rebooted movie starring Nic Cage is coming out next year.

I could go on and on, but I won't. Apologies to The Hunger Games.

The future is a place of worry, destruction, chaos. It's a place where there are billions die and few survive. It's gruesome and violent, and we should start preparing for it, just in case. Right?

But Christians understand the future differently. The future is about glory and hope, not about Raptures and death and destruction. Revelation has nothing to do with zombies or monsters-- it's about deliverance. It was written to offer comfort and ultimate hope for those who were suffering in the present day. To assure those who hurt that the future is in God's hands, not our own. "I saw a new heaven and a new earth... I saw a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven..." (21:2). John's vision is not about escaping earth-- the new reality comes from heaven to earth. "Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children" (21:7). The future is not a place where chaos is the rule.

Maybe as a society we're done with happy endings. Maybe we are ready to give up all hope that each of us will retire a millionaire, Social Security will always give us enough to live comfortably, and the Cowboys will win the Super Bowl again. And maybe a little realism is not a bad thing. But realism does not always lead to despair. Rather than fighting the future, because it is filled with evil and scary things, we can embrace the future as a place of real hope and comfort. Thinking of the future in those terms may well help us to embrace our present lives with greater joy as well.

11 July 2013

Cliches are so Cliche

The other night Christy and I watched Gangster Squad, which was so disappointing. I mean, look at this cast: Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, and the always lovable Jon Polito... and so many others! The cast was great (well, Sean Penn was really over the top playing Mickey Cohen) and the film looks stunning-- spectacular work by cinematographer Dion Beebe. Its over-violent in several places-- gratuitously so. It's biggest weakness was in the direction and writing. I mean, I have seen a ton of gangster movies-- one of my favorite genres-- but this one is filled with cliches that ruin it.

Example #1: One of the main sets is one of those typical '40s era night clubs where everyone would dress in their finest and there would be a live singer or comedian-- dinner and a show in the same place. The movie comes back to this same place over and over-- then one of the performers is a Carmen Miranda wannabe-- fruit on the head included of course. Really?

Example #2: Near the end of the film there is a shootout in a hotel lobby. It's set at Christmas time and there is a giant tree with ornaments and lights, and a table filled with decorative presents. With all the shooting back and forth, the thing explodes. Really. I know trees are flammable, but an explosion? And some of the bad guys walk down enormously wide stairs-- good guys at the bottom-- a la The Untouchables at the train station. I swear I expected a baby carriage to roll down in the middle of the gunfight.

It's one thing to honor the great LA post-WWII movie tradition-- starts and ends with Chinatown in my opinion, but LA Confidential is also great. It's another thing to exploit our love of the genre with retreaded ideas and plots. I am sure those guys jumped at the chance to wear a fedora and wingtips-- who wouldn't-- and Emma Stone looks every bit the LA glamour of the era. Must have been fun for all of them in wardrobe. But let's have more substance next time. Put this front of the camera talent in the hands of better behind the camera talent and we'll have something to build on.

Just this morning on Twitter I saw this note from Uberfacts: the ideas for the great Pixar films A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-E came out of a single lunch meeting. I've always had tremendous respect for the team at Pixar-- storytelling, creativity, animation skills, and especially, vision. Think about that lunch meeting that must have happened in the mid '90s. Those movies came out in 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2008. The fully realized vision took probably 15 years to cultivate. And every one of those movies is excellent.

Skill. Passion. Resources. Time.

I don't know anything about Gangster Squad's timeline, but I wonder if the studio rushed it-- sort of threw it together to take advantage of the rising stars of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The studio would probably argue the movie was a success-- out of nearly 88,000 votes on imdb.com rated it a 6.8 out of 10, which is high-- I might go 6.0. the Tomatometer rating of 32% is pretty rotten, but it did make nearly $50 million at the box office. Not sure how successful a formula that translates to.

Then I started thinking about churches. How much of what we offer (sermons, curriculum (ugh), worship services, etc.) is really a cliche? Everyone loves familiarity because it creates warm feelings of home. But each church is different. Each parish is different. Each Sunday ought to be different. Let's be thoughtful and deliberate in our approach. Let's slowly, carefully, mold vision to make sure the end product is its absolute best-- meaning it brings God glory and brings others closer to Christ. That could be a building, a sermon series, a Sunday school curriculum. Let's be at our best. We are gifted and skilled-- called to great work. I am fortunate to be part of a team here at Custer Road that puts together incredible stuff, and as I have walked through the hallways getting to know folk the last couple of weeks I am so thankful for these partners in ministry.

Jesus told a couple of parables about kingdom building, one of which is probably more familiar than the other: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches" (that's the familiar one-- Luke 13:18-19). But check this out: "[It's] also like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole" (Luke 13:20-21). The first parable is about humble beginnings and simplicity; the second one is about extravagance and multiplication. The woman tried to hide the yeast in a ton of dough-- but it still did its work-- producing enough to feed an enormous amount of people! May it be so with your ministry, wherever you find yourself: lay or clergy, staff or volunteer, rushed or patient. May God's vision for your ministry-- our common ministry-- grow into such a unique, cliche-less bounty that more and more folk are fed with the Bread of Heaven!

02 July 2013

The Youth Will Set You Free

20 years.

It's incredible to think about, but it's been twenty years since God came in to my life in a surprising, life changing way: through youth ministry. The summer of 1993 started out with lots of excitement: I graduated with a degree in History from Sam Houston State in Huntsville. I then began the tedious work of applying to school districts. Without any contacts anywhere, I randomly applied in places like Tyler, Dallas, San Antonio, and, of course, Austin. May rolled into June. One day Mom came into the living room, where I was planted on the couch. You know, next to the phone I was certain would ring at any time. "Penny's been calling for volunteers for the youth ministry at church," she said. "Get up and go help her out." So I did. I walked into Penny Buckert's office and offered to help. I started showing up at UMYF meetings on Sunday nights. Later in the summer I found myself a camp counselor at Lakeview camp for a week, and an adult helper on their mission trip, UM ARMY. While we were at camp I remember a chapel service where someone had a telephone on the altar. The phone would ring, and God would speak to whoever answered. I felt called to youth ministry in that moment. I reached out to another youth director in the service, who hugged me, and whispered in my ear, "Hear the call." Upon returning to Bay City I sought out youth director positions in and around the Houston area and somehow, miraculously, ended up taking the position at Missouri City UMC, the job Penny had vacated to come to Bay City. I was single, making about $15,000 a year, had my first solo apartment, and loving every minute!

After a year on the job, I accepted a position at Lake Olympia Middle School. I held that position for about six months. The kids were great, but it was the wrong vocation for me. I had attended a Walk to Emmaus and felt called to ordained ministry. Later that summer, after two fantastic years, I left Missouri City, moved to Dallas to attend Perkins, graduated in 1999, was ordained an Elder in 2001, and the story goes on from there.

20 years. How many people have I met, shared tears of sorrow and joy with, baptized babies and adults, sermons preached, and everything else pastors are privileged to do? What would my life look like if one of those school districts had called me off of Mom and Dad's couch? What if I had refused Mom's "invitation" to help with the youth (no chance of that!)? What if Penny had not said yes to my offer (never knew a youth director to decline help from ANYONE, much less someone who was 22!)?

So I have officially been at Custer Road for two days, but I was also here unofficially here last week for Vacation Bible School. It was an amazing experience last week-- just walking through the halls and seeing youth in the church. It had literally been two years since I had seen a youth in church. Since my beginnings in ministry twenty years ago I have always had a heart for young people: confirmation classes, lock-ins, whatever. Maybe it is just because Twitter did not exist before, but this summer I have noticed many youth and young adults expressing a call to ministry-- some here at Custer Road-- and I hope to play some sort of mentoring/encouraging role in their journey. I've even been pastor a while ago to a couple of the CCYM (Conference Council on Youth Ministry) youth who are feeling called to ministry (Samantha McCulley and Maddie Chumley). Youth ministry is a real joy and I am proud to say I have experienced it on every level: as a youth, a young adult volunteer, as a director, as a pastor, and now as a parent. In advance, I'd like to thank Custer Road for the impact it will have on James starting later this summer. Maybe the youth ministry will lead him along a similar path as mine??

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing-- or waiting to do-- know that God is calling you to someplace new. Maybe someplace unexpected and surprising. Maybe the first step to realizing this new call on your life is getting off the couch. Or accepting an invitation you may not have heard until now. I encourage you to step out in faith, say yes to God, follow Jesus on the way of discipleship. 20 years from now you may look upon this summer with much gratitude, joy, and thanksgiving.

28 June 2013

Change Is Gonna Do Ya Good

Last week I spent a couple of days making final "official" visits to some of our homebound members. Many of them had questions about Oak Lawn's future because of recent changes. I said, more than once, that Oak Lawn has great days ahead. "Really?" I was asked more than once. Absolutely. There is a ton of change the church has to deal with this summer: new financial realities, new faces, saying goodbye to familiar ones. Really, none of these changes would be very surprising to any who had access to announcements, attended meetings, or had conversations with others who were informed. One mantra we've bounced around fairly regularly since last December, when many of these changes first began to be considered, is "People do not dislike change. People dislike the grief that comes with change." Your leaders in the church have done an exceptional job making themselves available to the congregation's questions, concerns, and opinions. Decisions were made that were not popular, and some reacted in ways they probably regret today. Some decided their best way to show their displeasure was to leave the church or withhold financial support. We can only pray that God will heal their broken hearts and either restore them to fellowship at Oak Lawn, or another community of faith. Unfortunately, most folk who leave churches do not worship elsewhere.

But I can answer the questions about Oak Lawn's future with an emphatic, "Absolutely" because I know God has a deeper purpose and vision for this community at the corner of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs. During just my tenure here-two years-I have seen tremendous change, almost all of it better for the short and long-term status of the church. During those two years we said goodbye to some wonderful Oak Lawn saints; in their stead we have raised new, faithful leaders who have pushed the church out into the neighborhood in wonderful ways that I know will bear fruit over time. And the intense development and transformation of the neighborhood-on both sides of Turtle Creek-will have a major impact on the church for the next couple of decades.

I am thrilled that Bishop McKee and the appointive cabinet saw fit to appoint Anna Hosemann Butler as your new Senior Pastor. I have been in constant contact with her since the announcement was made in May. She has wonderful gifts, skills, and passion. But it is not Anna's responsibility to carry the church's mission and vision forward, just as it was not mine to establish a vision. The God we serve is faithful, and is as much at work in the life of Oak Lawn today as over the last 138 years. Pastor Anna will shepherd you-be your spiritual guide-but it will be the layfolk of the church who determine its future health and well being. Oak Lawn is blessed with tremendously smart, talented, gifted individuals who have said 'yes' to the challenge of leadership. It's my earnest prayer that they will know the love and support of everyone-from the newest member to our longest-tenured members.

The other day I broke the boys' hearts: I shaved. I loved having a full beard for the first time, and it will certainly come back someday, but after 6-7 weeks it was time for it to go. Miles, James, and Linus had dreams of the beard looking like Professor Dumbledore's in the Harry Potter books or the guys from Duck Dynasty. I was accused of betrayal. After a few days their sorrow has turned to joy (John 16:20)-well, maybe that's a stretch but at least their anger has subsided. The grief and other emotions many are feeling at Oak Lawn will heal over time, and it will take every person to participate in that healing in ways that build up both the individual and the community. Allow the Spirit of God to bless and work in your midst!

This week I have split time between Oak Lawn and Custer Road, moving offices, meeting CR staff, taking the boys to Vacation Bible School there. As we made the curve on Spring Creek and the church steeple came into view, Miles (8) from the back seat cried, "DANG!" The boys were also impressed that Plano police guided kids and parents across the street, and of course the size of the building and numbers of children and youth are beyond anything we've experienced. The staff has been very gracious- Rev Tim Morrison, Music Director, said, "We'll take good care of you, because we need you to care for us." This would be a wonderful sentiment to share with Pastor Anna.

It's a surreal move, this one, because unlike all others we will not move house or the boys' school. We are very grateful and excited for this new opportunity, and we are thankful for our ministry at Oak Lawn. Our family has been a part of this church family since 1998, and those relationships will continue, but unofficially-you've heard me say before: "No one ever really leaves Oak Lawn." Thank you for the privilege of being one of your pastors. I am grateful for the wonderful staff's love and support, the way people like Pastor Kerry, Tiffany, Byron, Stena, and others worked extra hard to form a youth group, and those who played significant roles in our boys' spiritual development through teaching and encouragement. Thank you for the feedback and appreciation of my sermons and leadership. May you continue to be bold, unafraid of failure or risk, ready to embrace one of the most dynamic, exciting, vibrant communities in North Texas. We'll be watching and praying!

13 June 2013

Compass Points

This week has been a busy one in the Drenner household: Christy was in Orlando on a business trip for five days, Miles and Linus have participated in Cub Scout Twilight Camp (so called because it runs from 4:00-8:30 p.m. only, not a sleepaway camp), and all three boys have participated in Vacation Bible School at University Park UMC (thanks for the hospitality, friends!). Somewhere along the way-- I think it was one of Christy's little surprises she brought back from Florida-- Linus (5) secured a small compass. Miles had one too from scout camp. So on the way to VBS this morning Linus kept saying, "We're going North! Now we're going South! Now we're going West! Now we're going North/South!" From the third row Miles (8) would respond, "No, we're going West. No, we're still going West. No, now we're going South." Then Linus realized he could not find the little bubble that actually marked the direction on the compass. I tried to find it. I failed as well. I guess that means we're doomed if we ever get lost.

After dropping the boys off at UP, I came to my office for my daily devotional. The assigned text from today came from Deuteronomy 29, one of the final few chapters of the journey to the Promised Land after God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. It's been a rough ride, but God has been faithful: "I've led you in the wilderness forty years now; neither the clothes on your back nor the sandals on your feet have worn out" (Deuteronomy 29:5). Forty years. Both Exodus and Deuteronomy tell us the Hebrew people were stubborn, unfaithful, disruptive, and disrespectful of authority (God's, as well as Moses and Aaron). Their apostasy has led to their loss of direction. In other words, their moral compass is about as effective as Linus' toy compass.

The other text in the devotional this morning was the testimony of Stephen (Acts 7:44-8:1). Stephen's moral compass is centered on Christ-- and as a result he has clarity to deliver a prophetic message his audience does not want to hear. This results in his death, but even as he dies his compass is still pointed to the bright and morning star, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:19, Revelation 22:16).

"We're going North! Now we're going South! Now we're going West! Now we're going North/South!" Have you ever felt lost? Disoriented? Running in circles? It's an empty feeling, and not how God wants us to live. Maybe a little re-calibration is needed.

At the end of the Deuteronomy text God is ready to, once again, make a covenant with the Hebrew people-- a covenant they have broken many times, and will do so again. God says, "I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand with us today... but also with those who are not with us today" (verses 14 & 15). That "not with us today" includes folk like Stephen, you, and me. People who are willing to be diligent (verse 9) in their relationship with God-- "...the Lord will make you his own people right now-- he will be your God just as he promised you..." (verse 13).

Each of us has an invitation today to be part of that covenant relationship with God. We may not have the faith of Stephen immediately-- and we may never fully get there-- but that's not really the issue. God doesn't want you to be another Stephen-- God wants you to be your best you. God says to the Hebrews: "I have led you..." Know that God's grace, prevenient (going before you, leading you), justifying (saving you) sanctifying (perfecting you in love) is as much at work in your life as Stephen and every other great person of faith you have encountered. Throw out the toy compasses-- whatever form they are-- and embrace God's leadership in your life. Set your mind/heart/soul on the bright and morning star, Jesus Christ, and let him be your compass.

11 June 2013

Parallel Universe

Last night after I wrote the blog about Man of Steel I pulled up 1982's Star Trek II on Netflix. I actually own the Blu-ray but I wanted to watch in bed. That's the very definition of laziness. Anyway, I've had this movie on my mind since Star Trek Into Darkness came out a few weeks ago (for those of you who have not seen it, run to the cinema and come back-- spoilers will follow).

You have been warned! Last chance!

Both of these Star Trek movies at their core deal with relationships, especially the one between Kirk and Spock. In Into Darkness the relationship is still in its infancy; in Kahn Kirk and Spock have been flying the galaxy for fifteen years! At the beginning of Into Darkness Kirk violates one of the fundamental rules of Star Fleet, the Prime Directive, in order to save Spock's life. Spock includes this in his official report of the mission, and Kirk loses his command. This makes Kirk crazy: "You don't stab friends in the back." Throughout the rest of the movie, which features a new version of the same villain Kahn, Spock and Kirk try to grow together in their friendship. Just like Star Trek II, there is a scene when one of this pair gives his life for the ship's safety. In an homage to the 1982 film, the present Spock and Kirk rehash some of the same dialogue and movements from the earlier film. It's beautifully done.

In the 1982 film, Spock dies. In 2013 it's Kirk. By the end of the film Kirk has accepted that his friend Spock is better suited to captain a ship, because Kirk is too reckless. This awareness leads Kirk to self-sacrifice. It is a powerful, emotional moment. In 1982, the Spock death scene is followed by a quiet funeral-at-space scene with the eulogy given by Kirk, then another scene between Kirk and his son:

David Marcus: "Saavik [a junior officer] was right. You have never faced death."
Kirk: "Not like this, no."
Marcus: "You once told her that how we face death is as important as how we face life."
Kirk: "Those were just words."
Marcus: "Yes, but good words. You should listen to them."

As emotional as the event of Spock's death was-- and is-- I tear up everytime I watch that scene-- these subsequent scenes help us address our grief with honesty and introspection. It's much more than what we expect from a sci-fi action movie. The new movie, which I liked very much-- takes us in a different direction, and I think it is a mistake. As shocking as it must have been for Trekkies to witness Spock die (I was only 11 so I can't say for sure), to see Kirk die this time around would be mind-blowing. But there is no time for eloquent reflection and intimate conversations about the nature of death and grief. Kahn still has not been caught. Spock must leave his dead friend to fight the bad guy. During the fight, Dr McCoy discovers some of Kahn's blood injected into a dead tribble brings it back to life. We know from the prologue of the movie that Kahn's blood caused a young girl to survive a deadly disease. Upon Kahn's capture McCoy transfuses Kirk with Kahn's blood and Kirk is revived.

From a cinematic/storytelling perspective, I believe it was a mistake to bring Kirk back. Don't let us off the hook so easily. Give us respect enough to deal with our grief and seek out our own answers. Each of us will one day face the moment Kirk did in the movie, and we spend enough time, stress, dollars and whatever other resources we can muster to deny it or put it off. Some have even argued that folk invented religion to deal with our fear of death. For Christians, we hear the words of Jesus: "I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever lives in me will never die" (John 11:25). Those words are not fearful-- they are hopeful. They give us strength and courage. Part of the real privilege of being a pastor is sharing exactly the same kind of moments with folk Spock and Kirk share in both of these movies-- the fear, the questions, the joy, the anticipation. Those conversations solidify relationships between pastor and parishioner, but also between friends. You may be struggling with the loss of a loved one, a medical diagnosis that scares you, or just have questions of your own mortality. It's an easy subject to run from, but thankfully God sends us spiritual friends, who may or may not be family, co-workers, part of your family of faith, whatever. I'd encourage you to seek out a trusted person in your life and embrace your grief and fear-- let God change your heart to peace and joy through faith.

By the end of Into Darkness, even if it lets us off the emotional hook, Kirk and Spock know, respect, and love each other much more than before. Maybe the director JJ Abrams and others remembered the fiasco that followed Star Trek II, Star Trek III, and its quest to bring back Spock from the dead and said, "Forget it, let's bring Kirk back in the same movie!" Maybe they spared us a lot of frustration. That's something to be grateful for. Like I said, this Star Trek series is great-- I've seen Into Darkness twice and enjoyed it very much-- when we want to embrace the emotional impact of life and death ("How we face death is as important as how we face life") we can check out Wrath of Kahn. You know everything was better in the 80s anyway!

10 June 2013

Kal-El or Emmanu-El?

The other night I had the opportunity to see an advance screening of Man of Steel, the latest reboot of the Superman franchise. I was seven in 1978 when the Christopher Reeve version came out. I liked that one, especially the music, and I really liked Superman II. I was intrigued by 2006's Superman Returns, if for no other reason than the teaser trailer, which still excites me seven years later (the movie was a dud). The teaser trailer features the music of the 1978 movie, plus words from Marlon Brando which were not used in the movie. Brando plays Jor-El, who sends his infant son to Earth because his planet Krypton will soon explode. It's all straight forward comic book stuff, but the Superman Returns trailer features familiar theological language for Christians: "...[Humanity] only lack[s] the light to show the way...for this reason about all others, their capacity for good, I am sending you, my only son..." (see John 8:12). Sounds a lot like the Christmas message, yes?

Man of Steel understands humanity as in need of salvation. In this version, Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, knows his son on Earth will have limitless power. When his wife says, "They will kill him," he responds, "How? He will be a god to them." As Christians we understand that God's primary will is to save us. The movie does not make a parallel to Jesus by beating us over the head, but the message is there. When the adult Kal-El/Clark struggles to decide to turn himself in to Earth's unknown invaders, he seeks out his hometown church and pastor. As he talks to his pastor the picture is framed with Clark in the foreground and a stained glass window of Jesus praying in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36), a time of his own struggle before revealing his true self to the world, in the background. During a subsequent battle in space Kal-El exits a spaceship in perfect cruciform, arms stretched out to his left in right. Near the end, Lois Lane says, "You saved me," perfectly summarizing Kal-El's purpose on Earth.

Superman is Jesus. With a cape.

We've seen movies dabble in Christ-imagery before (Neo in The Matrix and Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia come to mind). But Man of Steel is different because it embraces, rather than hints at, its themes. The storytellers who brought us this version of Superman (interestingly that name/title is used in only one scene) want us to think about salvation. Kal-El is not just a hero. He is a savior.

I'll be interested to see where the inevitable sequel(s) develop, or abandon, these themes. Speaking purely as a fanboy, Man of Steel is great. Great story, great emotion, great action. On its own it is a wonderful movie. Its reflections on the state of humanity in need of saving adds a very important theme for us to consider as we embrace our own need for salvation, and the lengths God will go to bring us to perfection in Christ.

03 May 2013

On the "Road" Again

(This week the great Willie Nelson turned 80. In honor of his birthday I tried a new ice cream, which was disappointing. So now I do him the great honor of lending the title to one of his more famous tunes to a blog post about an appointment change. You're welcome, sir.)

I received the news late last week that I will have an appointment change this summer. This was not a surprise, as I had requested a change in March for family reasons. What was a surprise was the destination- Custer Road UMC in Plano- and my role- an Associate Pastor position, working alongside incoming Senior Pastor Kory Knott. My exact duties are unknown at this point, but most of my work will center around developing a long-term strategy for growth at one of North Texas' leading churches. This appointment allows us to stay in the same house and the boys at their school. As I said, this was a change I sought- neither Oak Lawn's SPRC nor the appointive Cabinet initiated the move. I would have never dreamed the church would be Custer Road. I am thrilled and humbled by the opportunity.

I want to thank Oak Lawn for its welcome of my family and me when we were assigned here two years ago. I knew there was vital work to be done here- establishing a new vision for ministry, helping to strengthen short and long term finances, and help the church embrace new opportunities to engage the surrounding community. I am very pleased with what we accomplished: from establishing a permanent endowment fund, to hands on ministry in the neighborhood at Ash Wednesday and on the Katy Trail, to raising a new generation of leaders who bring incredible skills and passion. Over the last two years we have celebrated the lives of some great Oak Lawn saints, many of whom had an incredible impact on my formative years in ministry. What an honor to celebrate both their earthly, and heavenly, lives.

I like to say, "No one ever really leaves Oak Lawn." In fact, I just said it the other day to an outstanding young family moving to California later this summer! It's true, especially in our case. This will be the third time we've left Oak Lawn, and every time there have been new experiences, faces, and memories to take with us. Thank you for the privilege of being your pastor these last two years.

19 April 2013

"Resume." Reflections on an Emotional Week (Boston, West, US Senate)

This morning as I silenced the alarm on my phone I noticed a bulletin from
The Washington Post: one of the Boston bombing suspects had been killed; another, his brother, was on the run. Boston was in lockdown. Since then I have been constantly checking my Twitter feed for updates. In this era of instant communication, much of what I see I read with suspicion, because every media is determined to be the first to report a breakthrough (hello, CNN). I am in prayer for the safety of all involved in Boston, and for a peaceful end to this horrific week there.

At the same time my attention has been split for updates on the explosion in West, TX. I am grateful for the selfless acts of those first responders, police and firefighters, who consistently put themselves at risk for our safety. At our church level, I am grateful for our Missions team, who have been bouncing around ideas for ways to reach out in Christian love. And I am still coming to terms with my frustration with our leaders in Washington who refused to take simple, thoughtful measures to keep us safer from gun violence. It has been an exhausting, emotional week on so many levels.

I'll say more about all of this in the message on Sunday, continuing our "Breaking Good" series. And these themes will be picked up in next week's small groups, which are using a companion curriculum to the series. We're certain to have more questions than answers. Maybe the best question is: Do we trust God in the midst of our struggles? 1 Peter 1:21: "You have come to trust in God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God." I pray my faith lives up to that standard each day, and especially in weeks such as this one.

The other day as I walked home from the boys' school, I noticed a sign I have seen hundreds of times, but never reflected on before. Just past the school zone decrease in speed limit, the sign says: "Resume." I'll be walking past that sign again shortly, headed back to the school to read to Miles' second grade class. A normal, routine thing at the end of such an emotional week. Maybe there is a good message for us today. Resume. I'm sure we will stay posted to the events in Boston and West throughout the day, as well as local stuff that may pop up, but go about your life grounded in hope, peace, and love. Resume. Left go of fear and embrace God. Put your trust there, and not in yourself or others. Resume.

I hope to see you Sunday.

A Prayer for this Emotional Week
Lord Christ, this week has pushed our emotions to their limits. We have seen lives taken or changed forever at the hands of murderous individuals; we have seen lives lost or changed forever after a horrifying accident; we have seen our elected leaders fail to take actions which would have made us safer. We have seen heroic, selfless acts on behalf of strangers, and we are reminded of the sense of responsibility we should all share toward our brothers in sisters. Give comfort to all who mourn, give healing to all who hurt, and turn our hearts from vengeance to peace. Our questions and frustrations may go unanswered for a time, and it may seem that the darkness has overwhelmed the light. Help us, we pray, to trust in you, to be assured that our hope and faith are set on you-- and you alone.

Small Groups began meeting again this week!
You are invited to participate in one of our Oak Lawn small groups, which are using a companion curriculum to the "Breaking Good" sermon series.
Monday evenings at the home of Chris Bergh and Pete Peabody
Wednesday evenings at the home of Richard and Erin Eads
Thursday evenings at the home of Jay English
Friday mornings at the home of Sue and Mike Thorn
Friday evenings at the home of Joan Wu

29 March 2013

"Earn This."

When most people think of Steven Spielberg's classic Saving Private Ryan (1998), they think of the brutal first twenty minutes of the movie, a re-enactment of the storming of the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. When I think about the movie, I remember its bookends-- the first and last scenes of the movie. Both take place at the Memorial Cemetery at Normandy, where an elderly man kneels at the grave of a man called Captain John H Miller.

The story of the movie is about a desperate search for Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed in combat. The War Department dispatches a crew of excellent soldiers to find Ryan, to make sure his mother does not lose all of her sons in war. The group of soldiers is not pleased with the assignment, which will be very dangerous. Ryan is in at unknown location far behind enemy lines. After a long struggle they find him, and he is resistant to go-- why should he be so special? Why should he be the only one to go home? Near the end of the movie, Capt Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying. He pulls Ryan to him, and whispers these words: "Earn This." Here's a clip from the movie There are a couple of bloody shots here, being war and all.

Flash back to the cemetery again, and Ryan, now a grown man, is surrounded by his wife, his kids, and grandchildren. He kneels at the grave of Capt Miller and weeps. His wife consoles him, and he says, "Tell me I have been a good man." For the last sixty years, Ryan has carried the burden of the sacrifice these men made on his behalf. The words, "Earn This" are etched on his soul. Has his life been worthy of the sacrifice?

We began a message series weeks ago at the beginning of the Season of Lent called "Forgive." God forgives us our sin, allowing us to step in to a new life, free of guilt and shame. Jesus commands us to forgive those who have hurt us. Now we end on Good Friday, reflecting on Jesus' words from the cross: "Father, Forgive Them" (Luke 23:34). These are the words Jesus speaks as he looks down from the cross upon those in the crowds who insult him. His grace and love are so powerful that at the moment of total suffering and abandonment he is able to forgive. He does not say to them, "Earn This." He could have. It would have been easy. But it would have left us with a burden similar to Ryan's from the movie. We would face the cross this, and every, Good Friday, and say, "Tell me I have been a good person." We would have longed to hear that we were indeed worthy of such a sacrifice of love. But Jesus would have us to live free of guilt. We cannot earn God's love and forgiveness anyway. It is offered to us freely as a gift. We can accept it without guilt or shame.

There is more. As disciples of Jesus we seek to grow into his very image, to be the kind of people who can face such hate with radical love. "But I am not the Christ," you say. Right. But consider the story of a disciple, an ordinary person just like you and me, who faced similar suffering to Jesus-- and responded as Jesus did. Stephen was not one of the apostles-- his ministry was not preaching-- he was a servant who looked after the needs of people. He also had a tremendous faith and was not shy about it. When the religious folk began to insist that Stephen be silent, he refused. He was forced beyond the city gates and people began to throw rocks upon him. As he lay there dying, he said, "Father, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). Stephen prays for those who persecute him. His faith makes this possible. And if it was possible for Stephen, it is possible for us.

What rocks have been thrown your way recently? Who threw them at you, and why? What can you do with the hurt it caused in you? We can respond with violence, lashing out at those who hurt us. We can hold on to the burden of anger and allow it to become a bitterness that plagues us our whole lives. Or we can say, "Father do not hold this sin against them." We can, and must, summon the courage to look upon those who persecute us with forgiving hearts.

You have been forgiven. At the cross, Jesus considered human sin. Instead of saying, "Earn This," sentencing us to a life of guilt and shame, constantly wondering if we can live up to the sacrifice, Jesus interceded on our behalf. Looking at our sinful hearts, he prayed to God, "Forgive." May we live our lives in the way his life ended: with grace, love, and forgiveness.

08 March 2013

Mr (Rev) Irrelevant

The other day I realized I had made a scheduling snafu: My Tuesday schedule: Christian Believer class, a wedding conference immediately before that, and Pastor JoAnne's Taize service all conflicted with Miles' first ever Pinewood Derby for Cub Scouts. Just a couple of days before, all five of us spent an hour of so sanding and painting all three boys' cars for the derby. How could I have forgotten it? That morning I began working the phone, cancelling my appointment, telling JoAnne I could not be at worship, asking Sue Thorn to step in and lead class until I got there. It all worked out. Whew.

We had a great time at the derby. Miles' car came in 2nd or 3rd (out of 4) in all of its races, and he won a trophy for "Most Funky Car." The racing was over at 7:25. Then I headed to church for Christian Believer. I was on time. And then: traffic. Not just traffic: TRAFFIC. It took 45 minutes to get to SMU from Royal. I began texting members of the class to say I would be later than I thought because of traffic. Sue wrote back: "Go home. We're fine." But I was determined. I kept going. Another 10 minutes to Knox, where the accident happened. From Byron, and Sue again: "Really. Go home." So I u-turned there at Knox. I arrived home at 8:45. More than an hour of my life was lost in just a few miles on Central. Oy. I was not happy.

When I walked in the door, Christy said she had told the boys about all the things I had missed to go to the Pinewood Derby. I went upstairs to see Miles and congratulate him on his "Funkiest Car" award. He was still awake. He said, "Dad, thanks for missing all that stuff for the Pinewood Derby." It was one of those moments Dads live for. I have thought about that all week, and two points keep coming to mind:

* I am proud to be part of a church that would give me the permission to be a Dad for special events like that. Thank you.
* I was proud to be irrelevant to the church that night.

Every text from study participants that said, "Go home, we're good," made me remember one of the most important lessons pastors, and leaders in general, can learn: it's not about us. Our main task is to grow leaders who will ultimately make us irrelevant. What a joy to see people embrace their own leadership and take pride in their own ministry. It's been a foundational understanding of ministry of mine since I was in seminary: pastors and professional staff should "equip the saints for ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). The best gift we can offer to layfolk is to help them realize their gifts, get out of the way, and let them use them for the Kingdom. As John the Baptizer put it, "[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

As we make this discipleship journey together, may you realize that you have gifts for ministry. Your pastors and professional staff can assist you in discovering your gifts, but it is not our responsibility to do the ministry of the church-- that's for the "saints,"-- YOU-- to use Ephesians' term. This is good news especially in United Methodist churches, where clergy serve at the pleasure of the bishop and agree to be appointed elsewhere when there is a need. Staff members sometimes move on for a variety of reasons. If we become too dependent on clergy, or professional staff, for ministry to happen, what do we do when they move on?

Maybe you can help in this change of mindset-- the next time a pastor or staff person says, "I'll handle that," say, "No thanks. Just point me in the right direction and I'll handle it." Both of you will learn, or remember, a valuable lesson: it's ok to be irrelevant sometimes. It's ok to be sent home. It's ok to let someone do ministry when they assure you, "I've got this." The result will be increased faith, increased ministry, and increased pride in yourself and the church.

22 February 2013

Come Fly With Me

Last year I applied for funding for a three-month sabbatical that would have taken place this summer. My plan was to travel across the country and explore other churches similar to Oak Lawn: historic, inclusive, urban. Funding was denied by the Lilly Endowment-- not because the project was not worthy; it did not meet their qualifications. Lilly sabbaticals are more personal in nature-- renewal for the pastor, while our proposal was more of an academic model for sabbatical. I was pretty upset for a few weeks, because I was very excited for what we would have learned.

Later, a family in the church came forward with a special gift to send me on a mini-sabbatical to explore churches. So this week I have been making plans for a couple of learning trips this summer. One trip will be to Los Angeles, the other Washington DC. I'll share more about this later, but the short of it is: the DC trip I'm taking the family with me-- we're driving. The LA trip is a solo-- meaning I will fly. And many of you know I do not like to fly. And later in the summer I am flying to a conference in Denver. So I am already getting nervous about the airplanes.

I have not always been so uncomfortable on airplanes. Maybe it was the anticipation of going somewhere new, or excitement about a new project, but flying didn't become uncomfortable until 10 years ago or so. I have had many conversations with pilots about this, who assure me flying is safe, turbulence is not only normal but necessary, and that they are very good at what they do. No doubt. I heard once that fear of flying is a control issue: driving my car I have the illusion of control. Sitting in coach, 35,000 feet in the air... See, I am starting to freak out now!

This morning-- literally just 20 minutes ago-- I had a thought: maybe the difference in my reaction to flying is that I have more to lose. A decade ago I was in my early 30s, I was married, with one infant child. Ten years later, I am in my early 40s, still, thankfully, happily, married-- but with three boys, one of whom, Miles, turns 8 tomorrow. Is my discomfort-- not fear-- of flying more about my fear of losing what is most important to me?

When we are faced with the fear of losing what is dear to us, sometimes our perspective changes. All the statistical information about the safety of flying goes out the window-- yikes!-- when I am afraid. What about the rest of my life-- on the ground, as God intended? The economy is stronger now than it was a few years ago, but uncertainty is still there. If I am afraid of losing income, status, even my home, how will it impact the rest of my life? Our church is facing decisions that will lead to changes, and that anxiety-- how do we deal with that? When we have something to lose, do we cling to it at all costs-- even if it means acting out in ways that are hurtful to others? Later in our sermon series on forgiveness we'll examine a text (Luke 17) when Jesus commands the disciples to forgive when someone repents. Their response? "Increase our faith!!" It's hard work. We must learn to relinquish control, lay at the feet of Jesus that which is most dear to us, and honor God as Lord not only of our lives, but of all creation. "If you love your life you will lose it," Jesus says. "Those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24).

So when I board those planes this summer I will need to remind myself to be still. I will give thanks to God for the many blessings I have received-- not earned, but received as a gift. I will allow God's Spirit to enfold me and carry me where I need to go. In fact, I can have that same attitude today. And so can you. Whatever anxiety you are feeling, whatever you have to lose, I invite you to go ahead and surrender. That anxiety, the fear, the need to control, the uncertainty about the future. Lay it at the cross. Let it go. Today. Right now. Be ready to take up your own cross and follow the Lord into your promised future. Be thankful, and be faithful.

10 February 2013

Remembering Rebecca Wriker

We celebrated the life of Rebecca Bell Wriker (5) at Oak Lawn yesterday. These are the words and prayers I offered at the service. Her parents, Matt and Samantha, gave their permission to post them here, hoping they may be a source of comfort to others.

Last week I sat with Samantha in Rebecca's room at the hospital. We talked about finding meaning in all of this, and I gave her permission to go to the roof of the hospital and shout, "THIS IS NOT FAIR!!" to God. We could probably line people around the block today to shout at God. It can be a cathartic thing to do- God can certainly handle it. Rebecca's illness, metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD), was a tragic reality. It is not fair for a life which began as most other girls' to end in this way. Let us not define her memory by her disease, but rather our remembrance of the joy she shared with us. Every time we see a ladybug, let's remember how that was Rebecca's trademark. Every time a child shouts aloud on the swings at the park, let's remember how much Rebecca loved to swing. Every time we hear a Laurie Berkner song, let's remember she was Rebecca's favorite, even having the chance to see her in Austin via the Make a Wish Foundation. Let's remember her wonder and curiosity when she happily explored the cockpit of Matt's airplane. Whenever we see a child at the library being read to, let's remember Rebecca's love of books. When we hear a child pray the words, "Now I lay me down to sleep," remember Rebecca's "PRAY!" command to her parents every night. Or her "AWAY!!" command to healthcare providers when they entered the room.

We struggle to find the meaning in all of this, but we must be careful not to explain it away. Often when faced with such tragedy we believe we are most helpful to those we love by trying to explain away our grief: "Everything happens for a reason." "God needed another angel in heaven." What Matt and Samantha need the most today is love and compassion, not answers. Let us not try to save them from their grief- let us believe that their faith, as damaged as it my be today, will, over time, become a source of strength and healing. The Rev William Sloan Coffin quoted Hemingway from A FAREWELL TO ARMS in a sermon after losing his own son: "The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." That's our prayer today, not just for Samantha and Matthew but for each one of us: we'll become stronger in our broken places.

Coffin remembered how countless pastors wrote to him quoting scriptures like, "Blessed are the mourners." Reflecting on that experience, he said, "While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. 'My God my God, why have you forsaken me?'" Those are words from Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted from the cross. In his time of suffering, perhaps he too felt abandoned by God, as many of us have felt during Rebecca's illness. Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament, a prayer voiced by one enduring great trial. It begins with, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?," but does not end there:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him,indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

The psalmist has become stronger in the broken places.

Several months ago Matt and Samantha returned to Oak Lawn after many years away. They sat on the back pew with Rebecca. After the service I walked back there and we spent several minutes catching up. A few months later many of us gathered in this space for Rebecca's baptism. I wheeled her around in her chair and proudly said, “This is Rebecca” to her church family. It was a special day. I don't know what brought the Wriker family back to Oak Lawn- lots of great churches between here and Frisco- but I am so glad. Sharing this time and these experiences with Matt, Samantha, Rebecca, and this family has been holy. At her baptism the two of you made the commitment "that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God's grace for herself." Unfortunately she was not able to get there, but you gave her great teaching and example on how to live. The 5th commandment calls for us to honor father and mother, but surely parents are called to honor their children as well. You honored Rebecca in every way.

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 says, "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangels and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words."

Or 1 John 3: 1-3 says,"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure."

The text I read from Romans 8:31-39 could not be any more appropriate for our grief today: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that was created will be able to separate us from God’s great love in Christ Jesus.” Wherever you are emotionally today and in the coming days, know that God is with you. It may seem that God is distant—but remember Paul’s promise: nothing can separate you from the love of God.

Years ago- probably 15 years ago- a group of us from church went to a Stars game at Reunion Arena. Steve and Elliot Schemmel were there- Elliot was about 3-4. We were in the nosebleed section, when we her Elliot exclaim, "I can see Jesus!" No one else saw Jesus that day as far as I know, so we could question it. There's no question today, that if we were quiet and reflective enough we might hear Elliot's cousin Rebecca say, "I can see Jesus!" We know she can, because that is where she is. She has been restored. Today she runs, sings, and dances in God's presence. She has been healed of her disease. She is no longer confined to her earthly body. And as much as this tragedy hurts each of us, we also find a way to rejoice for Rebecca, as she has been raised by the same power that raised Jesus. Let us pray.

Life-giving God, your love surrounded each of us in our mothers’ wombs, and from that secret place you called us forth to life. Pour out your compassion on Samantha. Her heart is heavy with the loss of a promise that once took form in her womb. Have compassion upon Matthew and the members of this family. They grieve the loss of hopes they anticipated, the dreams they envisioned, the relationship they desired. Give them courage to admit their pain and confusion, and couple that confession with the simplicity to rest in your care. Allow them to grieve, and then to accept this loss. Warm them in the embrace of your arms. Knit together their frayed emotions, and bind their hearts with the fabric of your love for them.

Jesus, most gentle and tender friend of children. You valued 'the little ones as those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.' You will understand how Rebecca brought the touch of heaven into our daily lives. She transformed everything and lit us up. Darkness has come upon us now that she is gone. Lighten our darkness now we beseech you, 0 Lord. Jesus, Rebecca did not travel far into this life, and so did not have far to travel back to you. Hold her in peace now and forever in your loving arms. Into the arms of your love we give Rebecca’s soul. Into your hands we also give ourselves. Comfort us all. Keep tender and true the love in which we hold one another. Let not our longing for you ever cease. May things unseen and eternal grow more real for us, more full of meaning, that in our living and dying you may be our peace. We offer our prayer through the name of Jesus, who called the children to him with the words, “Let them come to me.”