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.