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.