Thursday, July 8, 2010

Moving Blog

I am moving my blog to WordPress, primarily because WP has a BlackBerry app through which I can post blogs. But to read previous posts, you'll need to come back here (

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Opponents and Enemies

Just an aside. I conceived of a new form of poetry: poetweet. It consists of exactly 140 characters (including spaces and punctuation). I even registered it with Urban Dictionary! It doesn't have to rhyme, nor is there any proscribed rhythm to it. The only structure is that it has to be exactly 140 characters. Here is my first attempt at poetweet:

Of all the sights I see, there is none so beautiful as your shadow. Knowing you're near, and the sun is shining is enough for me. Beautiful.

Go ahead, try your own! The funny thing is that it is not retweetable because you can't add any characters, so you can't attribute it correctly. And here's a further constraint: no tweetisms (like ur for you are, or b4 for before, etc. You have to spell everything out, except that normal contractions are allowed).

Ok, that was an aside. Here's what I wanted to talk about.

I have been struggling with an issue of mine that manifests in political discussions and in team rivalry (among other things). I have let myself become very strong in my expression of political ideas and with regard to sports teams, to the point that I actually get angry and defensive. I know it isn't good because my spirit feels sour when I do it. In a previous post I have committed myself to do better. But in thinking about the issue, I have come to some realizations.

There is a big difference between an opponent and an enemy, but sometimes we blur the distinction. And I think this goes to the increase of incivility in our culture today. When someone has a differing opinion (political or otherwise) we have the choice to treat that person either as an enemy or as an opponent (in this matter). If the former, then we dispense with them along with their ideas. If the later, then we engage with them in helpful conversation, discussing our differences in an effort not necessarily to convert them to our way of thinking, but to understand each other more clearly.

In sports, this means that we don't "rub it in" mercilessly when our "nemesis team" is defeated or when our team is victorious (it's called sportsmanship). I don't know why I forgot this, but I did. Now I am working on regaining this perspective in my life and relationships. One can be a fan of a certain team without vilifying other teams (soccer fans, are you listening?). I don't have to HATE the Dodgers just because they are rivals of the Padres and the Angels, one because they are in the same division, and the other because they are in the same city. I have a lot of work to do on this one!

And I don't have to demonize political progressives in order to hold to a conservative political persuasion. There is no reason why we can't all "get along" and discuss things amicably without resorting to some of the mean-spirited comments and/or actions we sometimes do. This is also true of religious persuasions. I can be a Christian without demonizing Islam or New Age or any other faith. I can hold to what I believe without having to put down someone else's belief. That doesn't mean that I have to accept every faith (or opinion or allegiance) as equally valid, but that I don't need to put it down in order to promote my own.

So I need to see others with differing opinions and allegiances not as enemies, but as opponents. Not as demons, but as friends who just think differently.


Friday, July 2, 2010

Entertainment and Religion

There are many similarities between 21st Century American Christian Religion and Entertainment. Much of what passes for church programming is, essentially, faith-based entertainment, the purpose of which is to keep the faithful happy and participating. And the central "program" for most churches is worship. As hard as we might try to the contrary, a major part of American Christian worship is a form of entertainment.

Not that entertainment is bad; it just isn't what the Christian faith is about.

And I'm not just talking about "contemporary" worship. And I'm not just talking about "traditional" worship. There are entertainment elements in all styles.

We talk about "excellence" in worship and measure it in worldly terms. Is the organist good? Does the worship leader have a good voice? Is the choir in tune? Can the preacher hold his/her "audience"? All of which points to people-pleasing. If we wish to achieve "excellence" in terms of God's measurement, we would be talking about very different things. Does the preacher live what he/she is preaching? Is the musician's heart in touch with the Holy Spirit? Is the worship genuine? Because, you see, worship is not about pleasing people so much as pleasing God.

And church programming should be less about attracting members and more about being the Body of Christ in the world. We should be meeting needs, but not so much the needs of our church members as the needs of people who are not a part of the church. Jesus said that he "came not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45). As a "spiritual culture" we must transition away from self-indulgent, inwardly-focused programs to ministries that engage the world that God loved so much that He sent His only begotten Son to save, Who then passed to the Church that mission.

We have got to transition away from a Disneyland-type approach to "doing church" to a Mother Theresa-type approach.

Church people generally do not what to hear this. However, the world is on tip-toes, waiting for the children of God to step into their Jesus shoes and BE what they are: the Body of Christ.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I Didn’t Go to Church Today

I didn't go to church today. Mea culpa. But I was the only one without responsibilities at a church, so I got to stay home and wait for the repair person to come and re-install a kitchen light. He didn't get here until after I would have gotten back from church, but, oh well.

It is s strange thing, for me, not to go to church. For 30 years I have had vocational responsibilities that required that I be at church, so you have to understand. This is just plain weird. It's funny, though, because I don't feel guilty, so much as just awkward.

So much of the church culture I am a part of equates "being a Christian" with "going to church." We say things like, "Oh, he's a Christian but he doesn't go to church" or "She's a strong Christian; goes to church every Sunday!" For some reason, attending church services has, for some, become synonymous with faith commitment. Even though we all know that going to church doesn't make one a Christian any more than going to the movies makes you Brad Pitt.

There is an episode from The Simpsons (yes, I admit it, I like The Simpsons!) on this very subject. Homer decides to stay home from church on a wintery day. He discovers the "joys" of staying home from church and decides to start his own religion, which consists mainly of sitting around in his underwear watching football. There is a lot more to the plot, of course (you can read about it at, but suffice it to say that I felt something like Homer (without wanting to sit around in my underwear and start a new religion). Weird.

Tomorrow I am taking Nathan and his friend, Lizzy, to Disneyland. Now there's a contrast for you! I didn't go to church, but I'm going to Disneyland. But, you know, I'll bet that going to Disneyland is a lot closer to the common experience for modern Americans than going to church. In fact, I wonder if there aren't more people who go to amusement parks in a given week than go to church in the same week. What does that say about our culture? What does it say about me that I would ask that question?

Like I said, I feel weird.

I'll have to think about all of this some more, and I'll have a lot of time while the "kids" are off doing the Disney-thing and I find a nice shady spot to sit and think/read/watch people go by. Now THAT'S what I call FUN!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

God and Baseball

I love baseball. I love God. Not necessarily in that order.

As I was contemplating the inordinate amount of time I am spending watching baseball on TV and at the ball park while on sabbatical (it really isn't all that much; I'm not watching re-runs of the games, at least), I was struck by how much life is like baseball.

Bear with me.

I suppose anything can be an allegory for life if you're willing to stretch far enough. But baseball has some things about it that are remarkable in this regard. Like life, in baseball you have to navigate through various situations and scenarios in an attempt to "win" or at least not to "lose." Much of baseball, as life, is about performance. Do you make the standard plays? Do you make the really tough plays? Can you hit a home run? I feel a sermon coming on.

But seriously, consider baseball. There are the players, they represent you and me as we sojourn in life. Then there are the managers, those who teach us and coach us. Where is God? At first, we're likely to identify God with the umpires. But I don't think that is right. Or maybe, God is the scoreboard keeping track of our "performances." Nah! Maybe God is the vendors providing refreshment and nourishment? Also Nah! Is God the sportscasters, observing each play and offering expert commentary? I like Vin Scully, but he's not God!

So where is God?

I think God is the crowd of fans, cheering us on. But the allegory breaks down quickly, so don't jump too fast. Unlike the crowds, God is not partisan (Rom. 2:11). God is not cheering the Angels on over the Dodgers (no need, since the Angels pretty much beat up on the Dodgers! But I digress…). God cheers equally for both teams, for the love of the game. In fact, God cheers for each player, you and me. I know. That's sounds really trite. But think about it… Ok, it is trite, but I'm trying here.

God doesn't care who wins or loses in baseball, despite the religious genuflections and cross-kissing of many players. But God does care about these things:

  1. God cares that we play/live with integrity. Cheating is not quite one of the 10 Commandments, but it could be. And "Thou shalt not steal" does not refer to taking 2nd base while the pitcher/catcher is napping, so don't go there! I'm talking about integrity, the kind of person you are when the umpire isn't looking, or regardless of the instant replay rules. God cares that we are people of honesty and integrity.
  2. God cares that we have fun. I can remember being amazed at friends when I was a young Christian, when they would summarize their "theology" as "God wants me to be happy." Period. That's not what I'm saying here. I'm saying that God delights in, among other things, our fun, joy, gleefulness, etc. One of my favorite images comes from a vision that someone had (I can't remember who, nobody famous, though) of Jesus, splashing in the water, playing with others. The thing is, life is not just about having fun, but God created fun for us to enjoy.
  3. God cares that we treat one another with respect. I know, I know. Trite again! But no matter what "team" we play on, I don't think God is pleased when we treat members of other teams (or umpires, or fans, or anybody else) with anything less than respect and honor. That's why I am making a change in my life. I am going to TRY and stop being so belligerent about my partisan love for the Angels and the Padres (and, thus, against the Dodgers). I have ragged mercilessly on my Dodgers-fans-friends, and I'm sensing that God is not pleased with that part of me. It is not unlike partisan politics, another area in my life that I need to inject a sense of peace. So, my apologies to my Dodgeresque friends. They are really a good team (I love Joe Torre, and Vin Scully, and most of the players, just not the team… Go figure.) Pray for me.
  4. Finally, God cares that we do our best. Gosh, I sound like some Norman-Rockwell-Hallmark-schoolmarm! But seriously, folks (as I straighten my tie)! It's like Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire) said: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." I agree that God takes pleasure when we excel, which is the only legitimate use of competition. Because, ultimately, we are only in competition with ourselves to improve and excel, to the glory of our Maker.

So, there you have it! My blog entry for today. How am I doing?

Don't answer that.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I haven't blogged for a few days. I've been preoccupied with buying and setting up an above-ground swimming pool in our backyard. But it is up and ready now, and we are hoping to use it this afternoon, along with a cook out, to celebrate Fathers Day!

I want to reflect a bit on the whole issue of fathers/God/sexism/etc.

One of my foci this sabbatical is to reconnect with the Father, God. I finished reading one book on the issue and have others as well. But it is interesting how closely related are the experiences of our earthly fathers and our heavenly Father. In a very profound way, my lack of intimacy with my heavenly Father is directly related to my lack of intimacy with my earthly father. My dad is a good man. He worked hard in his life to provide for his family. He loves me; I know this, however he seldom actually says it. But he was never a very "touchy-feely" kind of person. And he is not a very emotionally approachable man. This is partly due to his generation, so I don't fault him for it. But because of the emotional distance I experience with my dad I am having a difficult time experiencing Abba intimately. I'm also finding it difficult to be emotionally approachable to my own sons.

In seminary (way back in the early 80's) it was in vogue to ameliorate the name "Father" to "Parent" or even "Mother." The theory being that to identify God as a male parent was a negative, especially for women. For some reason people got it in their heads that in order for women to feel good about themselves, they needed to have a God with Whom they could relate, genderally (I LOVE making up new words!). But this whole theory was dashed, for me, once I got away from the academy and started ministering with real, ordinary women out in the world, who, by and large, had no problem with God-as-Father. As I reflect on this, I'm wondering what kind of relationship those who put forth the theory of neutering God (or making Him "Mother") was with their earthly fathers. That would make a great study! My own theory (unsupported by data) is that those who felt/feel the strongest about this (that women will not feel good about themselves if God is referred to as "Father") had, themselves, an emotionally distant relationship with their fathers. Obviously, I'm an exception (obviously, I'm exceptional!). However, I did subscribe to this theory at first. I wonder. Something to ponder (pondering is good, especially during a sabbatical!).

One thing is clear, Jesus called God "Father" (or "Abba" which is the Aramaic equivalent to our "Daddy") and invited us to do so as well. There are qualities of God that reflect the qualities of motherhood, to be sure, just as there is the infamous "feminine side" in every man (more or less). But this is not sociology, God is not subject to our theories of gender-relationships. However, it is interesting to consider to what degree our relationships with our earthly fathers affect our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Happy Fathers Day!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hospice Pastor

I want to reflect for a bit on the insight I gained in a conversation with other pastors. I don't recall the exact context, only that the idea that I have been a Hospice Pastor for most of my pastoral career came to me in a flash.

I have known hospice chaplains and hospice nurses. They are remarkable people! They pour themselves out to people who are dying so that the dying person can pass with dignity and a sense of having been cherished. But one cannot pour oneself out to another without becoming attached to that other, so hospice workers are in a constant state of grief. The people they have poured themselves out for, the people they have cared for, sometimes for months, ultimately die. There is a loss. There is grief. But that is the nature of the calling (and it is a calling, I believe). Hospice workers will occupy a very special place in heaven, I am convinced. I have never witnessed a "bad death" in the context of hospice, although I'm sure there have been a few. But for the vast majority, death comes not as an enemy, but as a friend who relieves the suffering and sets the person free.

So if there are hospice workers who work with individuals who are dying, are there also hospice pastors, whose calling it is to care for dying churches? And if so, am I so called?

This idea goes against just about everything I was taught and believe about the profession of "pastor." Far from helping a church to die well, pastors are called to bring life (resurrection) to a dying church. Much like a physician is called to heal rather than to help die, so a pastor is called. At least, that's what I assumed. Oh, I knew of pastors who actually were called to "close" a dying church, but in almost every story it turns out to be a resurrection ("the pastor was sent to close the church, but now there are 5 million in attendance!"). All of which adds to the sense of failure to those of us who pastor churches that don't experience a resurrection. A pastor's sense of self-worth is often inextricably bound to the relative "success" of his or her church, and so as a church slips away (often anesthetized so that it doesn't fear death) the pastor grows more and more depressed with feelings of failure. And yet, churches die. Some are, in fact, in a terminal state of decline. Wouldn't it make sense that God would care enough for the people of those dying churches to send someone to care for them, like a hospice worker, as they die?

Am I a hospice pastor?

Every church I have served since graduating from seminary has been dying. And while there might have been blips of life, they continued dying no matter what I did, although none has completely died as of yet. One could make the point that in the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the UMC, the vast majority of churches are dying and the likelihood is that I would always be appointed to dying churches, but that is another topic. The hard truth is that most dying churches will die, or at least be so transformed that they no longer have the identity of the original church. So is it wise to beat myself up for "failing" to revive the churches to which I am appointed? Resurrection, after all, is not the job of the pastor but, rather, that of God. And the last time I looked, I'm not God! So should I feel badly? A hospice worker will drive themselves into an early grave if they believe that if they just "do the right things" their patients will live. And yet, I am constantly harangued by such thoughts in relation to my churches.

And yet, resurrection is the central theme of the Christian faith. Healing is possible, if we are to learn anything from the ministry of Jesus. I'm wondering if a congregation is ever objectively terminal, or if, like some of the people Jesus healed, the question must be asked, "Do you WANT to be healed?" Because in order for a congregation to be resurrected, there must be the faith (desire, belief) that resurrection is possible. And what that resurrected life looks like MUST be left up to God and not defined narrowly as a reconstruction of the "glory years" when "Saint Perfect Pastor" was in charge and there were three services every Sunday and a gazillion kids in Sunday School, etc. etc. etc. After all, the Scripture says that "He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control." (Philippians 3:21 NLT) So what the resurrected church looks like is not dependent on our expectations or dreams, but upon His power. There were some who were not healed because they couldn't get beyond their own limited vision of what healing looked like (Matt. 19:22).

So how does one "do" hospice pastoring while hanging on to one's faith in resurrection? Isn't that a prescription for frustration? Is that why so many pastors "burn out"? Isn't that why I am on sabbatical in the first place?