29 January 2015

Invitation to Psalms

Last week I mentioned our Sunday night Bible study decided to drop Covenant and move to a 10-week study of Psalms. If you initially signed on for that class, and there were close to 30 of you, Jerry Butler has gone ahead and signed you up for Psalms. If you don't wish to take the class, that's cool, we have the stats! Ha!

Anyway, others are welcome to study Psalms too: register here. Materials are free and can be picked up Sunday morning or by calling the church office next week. You can find me Sunday in worship at 9:00 and teaching downstairs in B5 at 10:30. Here's the schedule:

Invitation to Psalms (10 weeks)
February 8-April 26
Sundays, 6:00-7:30 p.m. Childcare is available.
February 8, 15, 22
March 1, 8, 22, 29
April 12, 19, 26


If you are wanting a new short-term Bible study and Sunday nights do not work for you, join me for The Death of the Messiah, a Lenten Bible study: Wednesdays, 7:15-8:45 p.m., beginning February 18. The registration link can be found here (yes, the time has changed to 7:15 from 7:30). Happy Bible studying!

20 January 2015

Moving on from Covenant Bible Study

Note: I plan to share this post with the editors of Covenant. I have sent an email on the Covenant Bible Study website asking for contact information.

Last spring I heard of a new 24-week Bible study course called Covenant. As a Bible study leader I am always looking for new offerings, especially since Disciple Bible Study stopped producing
new materials. Covenant was introduced in a few random test market churches and the feedback was positive. I read a couple of sample lessons online and viewed some of the companion videos. The
videos, in particular, were impressive. I attended a training event for prospective Covenant leaders and began encouraging folk who had taken Bible studies with me before to sign up. I love the metaphor of the one table featured in every location where the videos were shot. And then two nights ago, ten weeks into the 24 week study, our class decided to quit Covenant and go to something else.

Before the class began I started feeling pangs in my gut telling me to change course. The cost of Covenant is high- $50 per person. Even so we still had 20+ registrants. A colleague teaching
Covenant in another church told me the material was very thin. From the very first lesson I found the materials frustrating. The study manual and the leader's guide were disconnected, with no real sense of continuity. There was very little reflection or application for every day life.

After we decided to quit one of the participants made the excellent observation that there was never any connection to previous chapters. This is due to the style of Covenant. The presenter/scholar of the weekly video also writes the commentary for that particular lesson, and then these exact points are
recalled in the leader's guide. 24 different writers= 24 different themes and perspectives. That is OK, as long as there is a consistent narrative- the one thing or takeaway you want participants to experience. When I preach one of my goals is to preach one sentence to one person. I attempt to focus the message so there is one clear idea I want to communicate. There is no such takeaway in Covenant. The editors seemed to be more focused on marketing than on content. Every lesson includes an invitation to download more content, at additional cost, per video. Participants
have already paid $50!

As the weeks progressed I grew more and more frustrated, and shared this with the class. I began to hear some concerns from the participants. We took a couple of weeks off for Christmas. I hoped
things would improve as we moved in to "Living the Covenant," the second eight week phase. It didn't. Sunday night I once again struggled to prepare. I decided to recommend to the class that we
move to another course. Then something serendipitous happened: my car broke down and I was late. By the time I arrived they had started the DVD lesson, and forty-five minutes later we finished
our discussion for the week. I then shared my thoughts about transitioning to another class- only to learn that while they waited for me they shared similar concerns with each other! Their thoughts and concerns assured me of the Holy Spirit's movement in our decision to move on from Covenant.

I shared a previous thought I had discussed with Jerry Butler, adult education coordinator at Custer Road: that Covenant could be a sort of warm up for those considering Disciple- or even
Christians new to Bible study. This idea was soundly disputed by folk in the class. The material is too over heads, lacks focus and continuity, and would be very frustrating. I am not writing this to shame the editors, writers, or presenters of Covenant, but as an invitation to re-examine the goals and
possibly revise the curriculum. What made Disciple so effective was the level where the bar was set: high. Excellent commentary written by one person for the entire study. The videos featured
different scholars each week, but their thoughts were not echoed again in the manual and the leader's guide. Give participants more space to ask questions. And have an overall focus, as well as a
weekly theme that builds and relates to the whole. And reconsider the cost. $50 for 24 weeks limits who can participate.

So our class decided to substitute the 10-week mini Disciple Introduction to the Psalms course. I led this class at Oak Lawn a couple of years ago and really loved it. Surprisingly so.


1. Follow your instincts. If the material doesn't feel right to the leader it will not translate to others.
2. Create an environment where feedback is welcome. Listen and respect others' voices. Vulnerability and honesty will always be appreciated and welcomed.
3. Never assume participants have a certain level of expertise. Sometimes it is less, often times much more than they know or admit.
4. Don't keep doing something for the sake of deadlines or schedules. If it is not working folk become frustrated and we end up harming rather than building up.
5. If Bible study is not fun something is wrong.
6. Ultimately the Spirit still moves! Our class bonded and wants to stay together.


Sundays, 6:00-7:30, Feb 8 - April 26
Materials are free! I'll post a registration link when it is available. Or, if Sundays aren't good for you, click here to sign up for my Lenten Bible study, Wednesdays, 7:30-9:00, Feb 18 - Apr 1.

13 January 2015

Seven (Brief) Movie Reviews

Christy and I take a mini-vacation to Houston without kiddos every year between Christmas and New Year's. One of the hallmarks of that trip is catching up on movies-- some of which have some Oscar buzz to them (nominations will be released Thursday January 15). This year on our weekend the two of us saw four movies together, I went solo for one, and then we accompanied my mom and her six grandsons for two more. So between December 27 and the 30th I saw seven movies. By the end of it I was about as fried as a movie lover can be. And we were unable to see Oscar contenders like Selma or American Sniper or Inherent Vice due to the maddening Hollywood practice of releasing January movies in late December in "select markets" for award consideration. I'll knock those out this weekend as the boyos return to Bay City for an MLK weekend with their cousins. For everyone who kept up with the endless Facebook check-ins at cinemas in and around Houston, here, in no particular order, are your long-awaited reviews.

There may be spoilers here, so be warned..

This movie was written and directed by Chris Rock. I am not a big fan of comedies-- movie or TV-- but Christy is, and she really wanted to see this. I am glad we did it. It is hilarious. This is by no means a wholesome, PG, family friendly movie-- it has some raunchy laughs in it. But there are also great observations about reality TV/celebrity culture, Hollywood decision making, race, and dealing with substance dependency. I loved the relaxed tone of the movie, and the coolness of Rosario Dawson's character. Chris Rock is an important voice in our society as a thinker and critic, and I hope he gets more opportunities to share his wisdom with us.

This was my favorite movie of the weekend, and my pick for Best Actor, Michael Keaton (Boyhood, which I reviewed previously here, will win Best Picture). I love Michael Keaton, and I am thrilled for him to have this amazing role. It's about an actor trying to reinvent himself beyond the multi-chapter franchises that made him world-famous (Top Five has a similar thread). But whether we are actors or not we all go through life phases that radically change us and make us re-evaluate who we are. The careers of pro athletes end; singles become married and have kids; children become caregivers of aging parents. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could win for Best Director, as great as Boyhood is. The entire movie is one complete shot-- no edits. Amazing work.

An amazing, Oscar worthy performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. This is the story of brilliant English mathematicians during WWII who invented a machine to decode German military plans. If this were a spy movie that would be a terrific story on its own. But the setting is irrelevant to the overall theme of lessening, and ultimately ruining, a person's life based on their private lives. Alan Turing, who was gay, was convicted of homosexual acts in the 1950s, sentenced to chemical castration, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Fifty years after his death his heroism during WWII was brought to light, the Prime Minister apologized for his "appalling treatment," and Queen Elizabeth granted him a posthumous pardon. There is a powerful message here for us all, regardless of our political or theological positions, about treating every person as a child of God, worthy of respect and honor.

Another Christy selection, and she was right again. This movie, surprisingly directed by Tim Burton (no strange monsters of frightening makeup; it sort of reminded me of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can-- set fifty years (ish) ago, featuring big names, but not a typical larger than life production for A-listers), tells the story of Margaret Keane, whose husband took credit for her work for many years. It's a great story of a woman overcoming societal barriers to share her gifts with the world. As always, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are spot-on.

(This was the double feature with Mom and the six grandsons). 
I never saw the first two Nights at the Museum, so I was completely lost. Ha! Seriously, the kids liked it, so OK. Heartfelt stuff at the end with Robin Williams, who died earlier in the year. I liked Into the Woods, but after too many dark cinemas in a short time period I was worn out. Fell asleep several times. It's good stuff, but I was suffering from saturation point-- remember that from high school science? There is a point where the stuff no longer will dissolve in a mixture. My brain was unwilling to take in anything else. I was done.

This really should be a separate review and that may happen at some point, but honestly for now I just want to get this off of my head and forget I saw the thing in the first place. I saw Exodus by myself, and Christy can thank me for that. In short, this is a stupid, pointless movie. I went in with very low expectations, and I was prepared to be angered if Ridley Scott destroyed the biblical story. He did that, but that's not why this movie is stupid and pointless. Hey, Noah changed the story from Genesis and I actually liked that movie. You want to "adapt" a Bible story? Go ahead. But do not fundamentally change the story and characters into something they are not. I liked Gladiator, but Moses was not a general. He did not train the Hebrews in warfare tactics. Ridley Scott does not give interviews, and the DVD commentaries I have heard from him are egotistical and self-serving, but I still have questions:
1. Why portray God as a kid? Where did that idea even come from? Is it a reference to Isaiah 9:6 or 11:6? Because those texts were written centuries after the Exodus occurred, so they should have no impact on the story. Christians have read them from a perspective of anticipation of Jesus, who was born as a child, but here? Two thousand years before Jesus? What the heck?
2. And why do Moses and God-kid go on this mission in the first place? Never once does Christian Bale say to Pharaoh, "Let my people go." So why is he risking himself in such a way? The Plagues do not come upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh's stubbornness, but because God-kid doesn't approve of Moses' military tactics.
3. Moses, although he is sent by God on this mission, never actually prays to God-- and neither does anyone else-- even the ones God is trying to save. The Hebrews follow Moses because he is the fruition of a prophecy, not because he is commissioned by God. Anyway, when Moses is frustrated with God (happens A LOT) he screams at nothing. Just shouts. Then God-kid shows up, or sometimes does not, and almost taunts Moses. The best thing about these shouting sessions is Joshua, played by Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad. He is sort of a lieutenant in Moses' army, and he often overhears the shouting from Moses to God. Only he can't see God-- he only sees Moses shouting at nothing. So he thinks: "We are following a crazy person. This is insane." His face, shown over and over, looking like this, reflects what I was thinking during the 2 1/2 hours:
What the heck am I doing here? Can I get a refund?
Yes, the movie looks good on the big screen, so maybe ask to watch it muted-- or better yet catch it on Blu Ray on your big screen in a couple of months. Make sure you rent-- do not buy. Would non-Jews or Christians dig it as an action movie? I don't think so. It's not good enough. You have to invest in the characters enough to care-- even those seeking to be set free from bondage. The Exodus of the Bible has to be a movie every director would love to make-- incredible visuals and amazing stories and characters-- but they are all wasted here. Not because the movie does not follow the book-- because no one involved fully appreciates what is at stake when God takes notice of our lives and chooses to act in powerful, liberating ways. Then we respond with celebration and joy, also missing from this movie. What a waste.

04 January 2015

Follow the Star!

This sermon was preached January 4, 2015, at Custer Road. You will find links to the TED talks, the Atlantic article, and the story of Officer William Stacy and Helen Johnson within the sermon text.

Some of you who are more on the Grinch side of the Christmas personality scale may have been disappointed because the Christmas decorations are still up at church and we sand The First Noel as an opening hymn. You’ve had your own decorations stored away for a week now, your tree is by the sidewalk waiting to be recycled, and you are ready to call your homeowner’s association because your neighbors still have their lights up. Well, you’ve obviously never heard the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. The Season of Christmas lasts 12 days—December 25 to January 6—so you need to redecorate your house for a couple more days! January 6, Tuesday, is the day of Epiphany, which we will observe today in worship. We are commemorating the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus.

Isaiah 60:1-6 foretold their visit centuries before Matthew recorded it:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Here’s Matthew’s account of the visit:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We don’t know much about these visitors—how many there were (we assume three because three gifts are presented), what exactly their profession was (Isaiah uses the word “king,” but Matthew uses “magi,” closer to wise men or scientists), or where they came from (maybe Iran?). We know a few things about them:

1.       They studied the stars, or were at least aware of stellar patterns. When they see a strange heavenly light they immediately notice it and follow it.
2.       The attribute the appearance of the star to a sign of some significant action.
3.       They respond with joy when the star stops moving—stars never do that—over Bethlehem
4.       They bring gifts appropriate to the occasion and person receiving them—including their own adoration
5.       They are obedient. When warned in a dream to go home via a different path they do it

Epiphany, then, is the day when we remember these magi. The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” or “appearance.” They attribute the arrival of the strange star to a meaning beyond scientific reason. The challenge for us today for Epiphany is not just to remember the magi’s visit—but to train our own eyes to see as they did. To take notice of God’s manifestation or appearance in our midst: recognize it, show our devotion, and take action so others will see the glory of God too.
And our world, even our own society, is in need of folk who are able to see the manifestation of God in our midst. 2014 was a very difficult year for our country, as we experienced brokenness and hurt by many. Reaction to the deaths of young black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner by the police, and subsequent decisions to not indict by juries, led to all kinds of protests and violence, including the murder of police officers in New York. Many folks responded to the tragedy in the only way they know how—Twitter and Facebook. In the days following these tragedies I saw way too many posts that ranged from heartbreak to “I don’t understand” to things you would only post from your phone or computer but never say to someone’s face. Race relations have not been in such a delicate place in our society for decades, and frankly, we’re trying to figure what to say and how to say it. It has not been easy.

I saw an article in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago that mentioned recent polling data. White evangelicals and Black Protestants were asked the same series of questions. When it came to religious expression, there was statistically very little difference, when compared to the larger society. For example:
Do you believe the Bible is the literal Word of God?
Society: 35% Yes
White evangelicals: 61% Yes
Black Protestants: 57% Yes

The two groups also share statistically similar beliefs in a personal God and an emphasis on individual salvation. But when asked about the state of the criminal justice system in America, a divide was evident: 66% of white evangelicals said blacks and other minorities received equal treatment as whites. 82% of African Americans disagreed with that statement. We also learned that white Americans’ core social networks are 91% white and only 1% black—and this translated to churches as well—86% of houses of worship are not diverse. How can two groups who worship and understand theology in very similar ways have such divergent ways of seeing the world outside the walls of the church? And what changes must we make ourselves—those of us in the church—so that wider change is possible in our society? I believe it starts with a rebirth of compassion. How we see others around us directly impacts how we relate to one another.

I watched a couple of TED talks recently that will help. One focused on our ability to see. This presenter was a social scientist, Emily Balcetis. She was interested in how folk motivate themselves to get into better physical shape. She wondered about the power of seeing things clearly. Two groups of people, one fit and the other not so much, were asked to judge the distance to a finish line. Unfit people saw the finish line farther away than those in good shape. But people who were motivated to exercise—even the more out of shape ones—those who were highly motivated saw the finish line more clearly and as 30% closer. What if we tuned our minds to see more clearly others’ hurt and suffering—what if we showed compassion—rather than rushing to judgment? The other TED talk, by Joan Halifax, spoke about compassion. She is a woman who had worked in hospice or death row situations for decades. She said the greatest enemies of compassion are pity, moral outrage, and fear. She said a society paralyzed by fear will find its capacity for compassion paralyzed.  She said you have to see clearly into the nature of suffering before it can be transformed. 

Jesus was teaching one day when this guy came up to him: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Good question. Many of us wonder the same thing. “Well,” Jesus said, “You know the Law: ‘Love your God with all your heart soul mind and strength,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “Ok,” they guy says: “Who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. This guy goes on a trip through the dangerous part of town, gets mugged, and is left for dead in the street. A couple of important folk see him, cross the road, and move on. But this one guy, a Samaritan, stops and care for him. Here’s the zinger: Jesus asks the guy: “Who was neighbor to the one who was hurt?” The guy can’t even say “Samaritan;” he simply replies, “The one who should mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Another time Jesus was preaching to a large crowd by the sea—one of only a couple of stories recorded in all four gospels. It had been a long day and the disciples were tired. So they go to Jesus: “Send the crowds away, so they can get themselves something to eat.” Not exactly the most compassionate response, right? What does Jesus say? “You give them something to eat.” This sort of changes the atmosphere of the conversation doesn’t it? So they find a kid’s lunch, bring it to Jesus, he prays over it, and directs the disciples to sit the folk down in large groups. Then they feed the hungry around them. 

Now today in the era of social media, people would post about these stories this kind of thing:
“Everyone knows Jericho to Jerusalem is dangerous. He should have known better.” #TakePrecautions
“The crowds should have brought their own lunches or at least some money for fast food.” #YoureOnYourOwn #NoHandouts

James 1:19 and 22: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr said about the Good Samaritan story: the priest and the Levite, who do not help the victim, think to themselves: “What will happen to me if I help?” The Samaritan thinks, “What will happen to him if I do not help?”

1 John 3:17-18: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

In the midst of an era of brokenness and hurt in our society, let us, as those who personify the manifestation and appearance of Christ, respond with compassionate action, rather than judgment and inaction. Remember what Jesus said: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before people, so that they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13, 16).

Dr Howard Thurman was one of the great African American preachers of the 20th century. He served as Dean of the Chapel at Howard and Boston Universities for 20 years. We wrote a ton of books, as well as the poem that’s printed on the bulletin cover—which the choir sang this morning as their anthem:
"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."

When tensions were at their highest a few weeks between persons of color and the police, a remarkable thing happened at a Dollar store in Tarrant, Alabama, a town of about 6000 people. A woman, Helen Johnson, had several kids at home who had not eaten in a few days. She literally scraped together every penny she could find, totaling $1.25, and went to buy some eggs to feed the kids. The eggs were more than the $1.25, so she grabbed a handful of eggs and put them in her pockets. They broke. The store called the police. The officer, William Stacy, knew the woman and her circumstances. He himself had grown up poor. Instead of arresting Mrs Johnson, he bought her a dozen eggs. Compassion and action changed a potentially terrible situation. The episode was recorded and went viral on social media. Donations from literally all over the world poured in for Mrs Johnson’s family—truckloads of food—even a Christmas tree. Officer Stacy was given a commendation by the city.

After Tuesday it will be time to put away the Christmas decorations. You’ll come to worship next Sunday for the Parent World series and you will find no holly or candles or nativity. After Tuesday go ahead and encourage that neighbor who keeps her lights up until March to consider taking them down. But do not store away your Christian compassion. Train your eyes to see the kind of world God sees—a world full of the possibility for justice and mercy for all people. Do not turn away from injustice, but face it, challenge it, and change it. Like those magi of long ago, witness the manifestation of God in your midst, be faithful, diligent, and committed to the mission. Share your light. Follow your star. And God’s glory will appear and be manifest in the lives of more and more people. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.