25 January 2013

Numbers Game

Last week the clergy of the North Texas Conference met for our annual Covenant Renewal Day (I say annual- it was annual a decade ago, but it's been hit and miss with recent bishops). I was glad that our new Bishop, Mike McKee, brought the practice back. He spoke to us about his understanding of the appointive process. This time of year is always an anxious one for pastors, as we know the Cabinet is meeting to begin the process of assigning pastors. He also thanked us in advance for finishing "Check Out," the day we report our numbers to the Annual Conference (membership, worship attendance, monies received and spent, etc.) It's a long, tenuous number crunching that brings few pastors joy. But, Bishop McKee reminded us, each number represents a person who knows Jesus.

In crunching those numbers, I thought of the faces they represent- many new folks, as well as long time ones. Yesterday I went to the annual conference archives to dig up some historical numbers for Oak Lawn, part of a project I am working on that will be produced next week. It's remarkable how consistent our worship attendance, for example, has been. Since 1995 we have floated around the 200 number. I am glad to say that we have consistently grown in numbers the last five years after a wild drop off in 2008- 114. In 2012 the number was 209. That's great growth, but it only brings us back to where we started at in 1995 (211). The big question we need to be asking is this: how can we get that number to 300? 400? 500?

After my tracking in the archives at the conference office, I went downstairs for a meeting of the North Texas Conference Council on Finance and Administration. Think of it as the Conference's Finance Committee. Oak Lawn's Mike Larsen and I are new to it this year. We heard from the Rev Jim Ozier, Director of New Church Development, that the sixteen new congregations the Conference has started have contributed 2000 more people in worship every Sunday across the Conference. That's wonderful news, and we need to be starting new ministries all over North Texas to reach more people. We need to be as creative as possible. Like the guy recently appointed to be chaplain to the Appalachian Trail. Anyone interested in serving as chaplain to the Katy Trail?

Literally every day I am in the office I spend several minutes looking out of my windows. They face East, so I see our parking lots, then out to Turtle Creek, and downtown on the near horizon. I pray for people living in those structures, more of which go up nearly every day. I spent some time studying demographic data around Uptown and found a real need for Christian community: people have little religious connections and feel a very low sense of well being. In other words, right outside of my windows is a mission field yearning for good news.

Jesus said, "The harvest is bigger than you imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest" (Luke 10:2). Then Jesus sent out seventy missionaries to do his work: healing the sick, proclaiming that God's kingdom has come. That's our mission this year (well, really every year). Next year when I fill out those reports AGAIN, I hope to do it with profound joy, because we would have significantly grown in worship attendance. Each of those numbers will represent a soul brought closer to God through the unique Oak Lawn witness. Are you ready to be sent out by the Lord of the Harvest?

18 January 2013

The Truth Will Set Us Free: Lance, Manti, You, and Me

If you have been anywhere within communication range of media this week (who isn't anymore? hmmm..) you have heard something of a couple of scandals rocking the sports world. Lance Armstrong, fellow Texan and one-time legendary cyclist, finally admitted to Oprah that he did in fact cheat-- after years of vehement denials. And a star college football player admitted to being the victim of an elaborate hoax-- and the details are still developing.

Personally, Lance Armstrong wore me out years ago. I'll admit a certain sense of American and Texan pride in his victories at the Tour de France, and his Livestrong Foundation has raised millions for cancer research. Reports were all over the place for years about how the guy was ungracious to people-- not only competitors, but teammates, friends, loved ones. I have no idea, and do not intend to judge him. I don't know the guy, but the way he handled himself, especially as allegations of cheating multiplied over the last couple of years, didn't lend him much credibility in my eyes. He sat down for an interview with Oprah which aired last night. I didn't see it and have very little interest in it, but from Twitter I have gleaned he did admit to doping during most of his championship years, called himself a bully, and said he would have to spend the remainder of his life repairing his reputation.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, a Heisman trophy runner-up, admitted to being "doped" himself this week, but not in a cheating way that impacted his play on the field. It turned out an inspirational story he used to motivate others about a woman he dated dying of leukemia was a hoax. The woman never existed. He claims he was manipulated over the Internet and knew nothing of the truth. The University is putting its full trust in their player, but it's unclear today how much he knew, and when. A potential high pick in April's NFL Draft, Te'o will have some explaining/soul searching over the next couple of months. I'll reserve judgment on this deal until we know more-- hopefully things will sort themselves out and he'll go on to a successful professional football career and, eventually, life in the real world.

Trust is a fragile thing, and in today's mass media information travels faster than light. Being a person of integrity takes time, commitment, and determination. It always makes me nervous when someone says, "You are really the person you act like when no one else is watching or listening." I get nervous because the idea of being constantly watched and monitored makes me uncomfortable, but really: in 2013 when are any of us not being watched? I participate in my own public profile every time I write a blog, an email like this one, post to Facebook or Twitter. We are constantly being vetted by others; how much to we vet ourselves?

Jesus said, "The truth will set you free," (John 8:32), but how often do we run from the truth? Hey, we all make mistakes-- I've made some big ones-- but running away from the truth seldom helps. It may delay judgment and guilt, but when we are caught the damage we've done is overwhelming and can be impossible to overcome. Being truthful is one of the 10 Commandments because if we do not participate in a community of mutual honesty and integrity the entire social structure will melt away over time. When was the last time you made a choice to compromise your moral code in order to get ahead? Were you discovered or did you get away with it? Will it be easier next time to lie or cheat? Or will it be harder to be truthful and admit that you are not perfect? Is the truth a prison to you or does it represent freedom to be the authentic child of God you were created to be?

If his apology is sincere, I hope folk hurt by Lance Armstrong will forgive. If we are Christians and someone truly asks for forgiveness, there is no choice but to forgive. It's a moral imperative. If he is insincere and this is a publicity stunt then he will find himself more and more isolated and will never recover. I hope the Manti Te'o story turns out to be innocuous, but if he was complicit in the creation of this episode he'll need to confess, repent, and seek forgiveness. It's the only way. The good news for all of us sinners is that God does not keep score as people do. In God's eyes, the truly penitent has the freedom and opportunity to go forward without guilt. Clinging to our past failures is our decision, not God's judgment, so once we have asked for and received forgiveness it's our responsibility to trust God enough to set us free.