Thursday, December 28, 2006

Time Turns Ford into a Lincoln?

This week Gerald Ford passed away and there has been no shortage of glowing tributes and kind words about the 38th President.

Being born in 1967, the Presidential election of 1976 was the first one I paid any attention to or remember in any way. At Meister Road Elementary School, in Lorain, OH, we were asked to cast our vote for either Mr. Ford or Jimmy Carter, Gov. of Georgia.

One of the threads that has run through many of the stories about Pres. Ford was his humility. "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln" was a soundbyte that has been played over and over, showing both humility, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.

The way many of the talking heads have gone on about Pres. Ford (being the "right man for the right time", doing the "selfless thing" of pardoning Nixon even though he knew it might cost him the 1976 election, being an "accidental President" who was advanced from the Congress to V.P., and then 8 short months later moved from V.P. to the President of the United States, the last 2 without seeking the office), you'd think he was on everyone's short list of greatest U.S. Presidents. But be honest, has anyone seen him on such a list?

The most common act from his Presidency for many citizens was a highly controversial pardon. For many under the age of 40, the most familiar connotation we have is not even of the actual man himself, but the Chevy Chase portrayal of the slips and falls on Saturday Night Live.

In some ways, the Ford family might actually be BETTER known for Betty's work with the substance abuse community.

This week my family has spent time watching the Rocky movie franchise. (It all started when many of the in-laws piled into vehicles at the end of Christmas Day and went to see the recently-released movie, Rocky Balbo together. It was kind of cool, taking over a theater with all of us going to the same showing; cousins sitting with cousins, uncles & aunts, nieces & nephews, all kind of acting like the giant screen was our living room.)

So this week in our home, we've spent part of the Christmas school break watching the other 5 moves on DVD. Last night we watched Rocky IV (that's "4", not "intravenous" though with all the bloodloss on screen...).

And who should appear in one of the opening scenes before the fight between Apollo Creed & Drago? James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Showbusiness. (Brown died a few hours before Pres. Ford passed away this week.) There was J.B. dancing and singing, as part of an American Spectacle, making sport with Dolph Lundgren's character.

(Interestingly enough, James Brown WAS ALSO parodied on SNL [hot tub!])

The thought crossed my mind, "Will my kids ever know Brown as anything other than the singer/dancer in that one Rocky movie?" That's how they'll remember him, unless some other image or picture comes across their path.

What a strange lesson on legacy.

So all this got me thinking: If time takes a mediocre, vanilla president and allows his accomplishments to be appreciated, lauded, and praised, what will time do to the memory people have of you and me?

If an entertainer of 50+ years becomes known by a generation, primarily for a bit role in a bit of a spoof movie scene, what seemingly meaningless acts or words in your life or mine will become magnified and grow in scope? What things that seem so significant and important now will one day crumble and blow away like "dust in the wind"?

Something to ponder and give us perspective as 2006 comes to a close.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Stealing the Church's Christmas Tree

The service was ending. I walked to the back door to shake hands with people as they were leaving the church.

One of my friends, a young father and husband came up to me and sarcastically said, "I know we had the Children's Christmas program a week before Christmas. But were we so excited to get Christmas over that we're chopping down our pine trees?!"

I asked what he meant. He walked me over to a window and pointed to where a large pine tree had been. The top 6 or 7 feet of the tree had been lopped off. Someone, obviously looking for a nice Christmas tree, had cut down what had been a beautiful (and somewhat expensive) pine tree.

I know it was pretty expensive because our church building is less than 18 months old. And I well remember what we had to pay to put in all of those trees; a landscaping cost we had to pay in order to meet that zoning ordinance that would allow us to move into the new facility.

(In defense of the thief/vandal, he left us the bottom 2-3 feet, looking like a shrub.)

[By the way, have you read my previous blog? The blog entitled "14,000 Days" asked the question about how long does it take to grow a Christmas tree to maturity. This was asked prior to the theft, but maybe a little providential.]

So I'm left to wrestle with several questions:

- What kind of person steals a tree from a church...AT CHRISTMAS??!!

- Was it for sale or for personal use? If it was stolen by the person who actually put it up, what kind of Christmas must it be to give presents around a stolen tree?

- Am I feeling more vengeful or redemptive? The vengeful side of me says, "Find the perpetrator, track 'em down and throw the book at them!"

- But them I'm struck by the meaning of Christmas; the coming of the baby, the need for sinful humanity to be saved, redeemed, healed; the call to you and me to be the Church, and become the hands, feet, and body of Christ in situations just like this. And I wonder, "How can we be redemptive in such a situation?"

I'm convinced some of the best and most creative theology is probably done at times like this. But I've got to tell you, I'm not sure what the Christlike response is.

I guess I'll begin to pray that one day, that person will find him/herself in our building. Initially, uncomfortable about the deed. But ultimately, able to know grace extended by us, and friendship and forgiveness, and finally, becoming a PART of the very church they stole a tree from (at Christmas!!).

What about you? Do you have someone in your life who has done the equivalent of stealing your church tree at Christmas?

Will you add to the cycle of anger and violence? Or will you step up and do the difficult thing? Will you return evil for evil? Or will you offer a creative prayer and grace-filled response that diffuses the situation and allows healing to flow?

What will your response be?

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

14,000 Days

That's approximately the length of my life to this point.

I'm a little over 39 years of age. If you measured it in days, it would be somewhere over 14,000.

I say that because occasionally it gives me a little better perspective on things.

For instance, I have lived the majority of my life overweight and I'm now trying, again, to do better by myself and my body nutritionally. I started this "new way of life" about a month ago or 30 days ago as of today.

Every once in awhile I get on the scale and think, "It's not moving." Or I look in the mirror and think "Same old fat guy." You start to wonder if it's really worth it. This can be frustrating when I've gone out of my way to be particularly self-disciplined for a meal, or for a whole day.

But about the time I start to get discouraged, ready to throw my hands up and throw a box of Little Debbies down (my throat), I think, "It's ONLY been 30 days; 30 days out of 14,000." It's taken 14,000 days to acquire the current physical specimen that is my several-spare-tires-body. (I started this endeavor somewhere between70-80 pounds overweight).

And I think about my decision to try and make this a way (or is it "weigh"?) of life. I realize if I'm blessed enough to live another 39 years, I have 14,000 days left!

Now that may sound like a lot. But as you roll back the odometer, one day every day, they become more and more precious. I find the perspective and urgency that says, "let's do this day right", live it the way we won't regret it 1 day, or even 14,000 days from now. The first 14,000 went by so quickly.

Speaking of time and achieving a goal, I saw this little quiz yesterday:

How long does it take for a Christmas tree to reach maturity?
a. 3-5 years
b. 5-7 years
c. 7-10 years

(Answer will follow)

This past weekend our church choir presented their Christmas program. We were combining with a choir from another church, had really spent a lot of time and effort putting it together, and asked the congregation to consider inviting friends, family, and neighbors. In return, as the pastor I promised not to say or do anything that would embarass them in front of their guests. (Snake handling was out this weekend!)

After the concert, one of my friends came up to me and asked, "Did you see who was here?! It was my neighbor!! We've been asking her to come for 10 years! Every year she's said no, had another commitment, or not been interested. But THIS year she came. And as the choir sang and you invited people to pray, tears were streaming down her cheeks. I REALLY think it was a powerful experience for her!"

10 invitations in 10 years. Nearly 3,700 days. They'd invited and invited and invited. The neighbor had said no. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. And finally...yes.

It only took 1 yes to make the difference, change the course, and pay off all those rejections.

It got me thinking: What do you and I feel passionate enough about that we'd ask the same person, once a year, every year, for ten years, to come and be a part of it? Is there anything in your life, so amazing, so precious to you, so valuable that you wanted other people to share it so much, that you'd spend a decade patiently, persistently trying to give it away? Do you know Someone so spectacular that you'd take 9 rejections from someone just to get to one "Yes" in order to hook them up?

One of the most famous verses in the Bible reads:

"For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

God "so loved the world". I have a feeling that ONE way God's love plays out is in that type of 10-year-inviting persistence. I'm thankful for it this Christmas season. And these three numbers (14,000 days, 10 years, and the length it takes for a Christmas tree), just helped to give it a little bit of perspective for me).

By the way, the answer to the Christmas tree question is 5-7 years, according to my source.

May we start planting seeds today for 2011-2013! Maybe those seeds are weight loss. Or sharing our faith with a friend. Begin to plant now for a great payoff later.

Grace & peace

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Polar Express Rolls Through Church

A Christmas bell.

If it has a handle on it, and someone is standing next to a red kettle in Nov./Dec. and a couple of thoughts run through my mind:

1.) It's the Salvation Army.
2.) They do good work. If I have some change in my pocket, I should throw it in.
3.) If I DON'T have change in my pocket, I wonder if there's another door in/out of the store. I hate passing up a valid need and not giving.

We recently saw "Polar Express" as a family. The Tom Hanks vehicle (where the actor portrays several [is it 5?] different characters).

Throughout the movie, the main character is lamenting the fact that his friends are able to hear something he can't. Initially, you're not sure what the sound is either. Eventually, you realize it is a bell.

At one point the young boy even has it in his hands, shaking it, but no sound seems to be coming out of it.

As the story unfolds, you realize there's a connection to believing in Christmas and hearing the bell. The boy, at the beginning of the movie, doesn't believe, so he can't hear the bell.

At a crucial point in the story, he comes to believe in Santa, the magic of Christmas, and is now able to hear the bell ring.

When Christmas morning arrives, there is one last present under the tree, and it is for him. As he rips into the box, he sees the shiny Christmas bell. He shakes it and his little sister comments on how beautiful it is. She can hear it ringing.

His parents, however, can't hear the bell and apologize that their son received a broken bell for Christmas. What they don't realize is that the bell isn't the problem...their ability to hear it IS. As a viewer, I was immediately feeling sorry for the parents. They're missing out and they don't even know it!

I think this is a great illustration of faith. Some of us see things and others of us don't. It doesn't necessarily mean it isn't there. It simply means we haven't acquired the ability to see or hear them yet.

I wonder, can you hear the bell?

If not, do you want to?

Grace & peace.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Do You Hear What I...What The...?!

I went out one night this week to visit a family in our church.

The family, which has a number of small children, has been without a steady income for months and was in urgent need of some financial help. We put out a call about a week ago and asked for our church, (which runs around 80), to help us raise $1,500 in five days.

Our people were generous, God was good, and we took in more than $1,600, with checks still coming in. (1 high schooler gave a check of $200!! This type of sacrifice and generosity is when the church is at its best, and being a member of the clergy is actually FUN.)

As I got back into my car to drive home, the radio was tuned into a station playing Christmas music. (By the way, do you have a station that starts playing Christmas music, round-the-clock, WAY TOO EARLY IN THE SEASON?? Listening to Christmas music in late Oct. is as bad as seeing Christmas displays in stores before the halloween masks have been taken down. It seems to sap a little of the "specialness" of the Dec. season. I avoid the music and the displays until after Thanksgiving. [I know for the Christian Church Calendar, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, but let's confess. In our culture, it actually begins the day after T-giving.)

So anyway, I'm in my car, the dj comes on and announces the next song is "O Holy Night" which is cool, a great song. And he proceeds to tell us the artist is... "Hall and Oates"?!!


Hall and Oates??

Now I was a fan of "Kiss on My List" and "Private Eyes" as much as anyone.

But it was really weird hearing the same duo that did "Maneater" singing about "O night divine" and that special, once-in-the-course-of-humanity-event.

It got me thinking: What does their performing such songs say about Christmas?

The cynic in me replys that it says "anything to make a buck" and there's nothing sacred to the entertainment industry.

But the hopeful mystic in me says "maybe, just maybe, it says more people than we realize wonder if there isn't something going on here that is more significant, more spectacular than we can put into words; that we all recognize it, even if we don't know how to explain it; even if we haven't all pledged our allegiance to it. That the possibility of Jesus being the one, unique expression of the Creator stepping into time and space and human existence is an event that deserves all our voices. Even Hall and Oates.

What do you think?

Grace & peace.

Friday, December 1, 2006

On The Waterfront

"If you need me, I'll be at the church." This was a statement made by a priest, played by Karl Malden, in the 1954 Acadey-award winning movie On The Waterfront.

He says it to a girl who has just found her brother murdered. She kneels, sobbing, over her dead brother's body. The priest tries for a moment or two to console her. Finally, when he sees he's getting nowhere, he utters that line: "If you need me, I'll be at the church."

Immediately I'm struck by the disconnect between her need and his statement. She needs a champion, someone who will find out who murdered her brother and help bring them to justice.

The priest, though well-meaning, has basically given up any responsibility and decides to head back to the safety of his church.

I wonder how many times people of faith have that same attitude.

"If you want help, come find us."

"If you need encouragement or hope, go look for us."

"Stop by our place and maybe we'll engage in dialogue with you."

"If you need me, I'll be at the church."

The girl, (played by Eva Marie Saint), responds incredulously. "At the church? Why would you go hide out at the church?" Where we need you is on the waterfront. People don't live in the church. People typically aren't lying bruised, bloody, and broken inside the church. They're at home, or in the office, or in the classroom, or on the line at the factory, or at the store.

That's where people are at. That's where the needs of humanity cry out for hope and the message of Good News.

May you be someone who takes the Good News to the waterfront.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Life in the Margins

Where we live, (in Michigan), the economy is not doing so great right now. The auto industry as a whole is down. In our area, if you don't work for one of the Big Three automakers, you work for their suppliers. Or you teach their kids, or you supply their food, or you sell them electronics, houses, or clothes. Or in my case, you pastor their church.

So when things are down for the Big Three, things are down for all of us.

I have a couple of friends who are going through tough times right now. And my heart goes out to them. And my mind begins to wander...

In this setting, one wonders what it means to be a person of faith in such difficult times.

A single mom is unable to go to work and hoping to not lose her house. A father of five has been downsized and is struggling to keep clothing on the backs of his kids. What difference does MY faith make in THEIR difficulty?

I came across a verse this morning that seems applicable. It takes place in the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Daniel is God's chosen instrument for interpreting dreams and delivering messages to several kings who have invaded Daniel's home country.

In this particular chapter, Nebuchadnezzar, of Babylon is the reigning monarch. And while the God of the Hebrews has used this gentile king to discipline the Jewish people, right now it is this very king who is receiving some correction and a threat. He's about to lose his mind and wander in the wilderness with the wild animals until he remembers from whom all his success has come.

Though he's the chosen instrument to bring the bad news, Daniel seems to have a soft spot in his heart for the king. He tells Neb that he hopes the dream is about the king's enemies and not the king himself. Daniel gives the interpretation, and then urges the king to "please accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed (Daniel 4:27)."

Isn't that an interesting instruction?

The prophet does NOT say "be morally pure" or "tell the truth" (though both instructions are given other places).

Instead, he instructs the one in power to "be kind to the oppressed".

I wonder if we in the American, evangelical tradition have forgotten that instruction. Another prophet tells us what God really requires of us:

"Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God."

It is so easy to be convinced that being religious, being spiritually sensitive, being Christian, is all about personal ethics and morals. That misses 1/2 of the story though, doesn't it?

My prayer for us is that we will take advantage of the opportunity to "do justice" when it approaches us; that we'll go out of our way to "be kind to the oppressed"; that we'll see this as a chance to live out our purpose on this earth rather than feeling bothered or greedy or irritated.

Maybe we can help bring grace, faith, hope, and love to the places where they seem to be most needed. Maybe we can bring God into the margins. Maybe this Christmas we'll begin to live out our destiny, bring peace on earth, and experience goodwill to men.

Grace & peace.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Merry Stinkin' Christmas

I did it once and I said I'd never do it again. And I haven't. Until this morning...

I got up at 5:09 AM. (I know because the red-numbered monster that is my alarm clock was staring at me with those digits.)

And as I rolled out of bed I headed to the store. I can't tell you what it is I went hunting for until Dec. 26. If I forget and you're still wondering after that, send me a "reply" and I'll tell you what it was and who it was for. That person might stumble across the blog and the whole thing would be blown.

As I was heading down the road there was ONE vehicle on the road with me. It was following me. As I approached the store, I deduced that they must be going to the same place I was. Where else would they be going on this road, at this hour, on this day?

We both pulled into the parking lot. You'd have thought it was the after-work crowd picking up groceries on the way home because there were so many cars patiently waiting for there owners to come back and jam them full of items.

However, once inside, NOBODY was on the grocery side of the store. I was able to pick up the grocery list items with the greatest of cheese (as well as lettuce, frozen peas, and other items for the famous "seven-layer salad" we'd be eating later in the day.)

While the grocery aisles were a wasteland, the electornics and clothing sections had lines in them. At 5:30 in the morning!!

Now I have to admit that I'm all up for a good adventure. The thrill of the hunt can get the best of me too.

But as I stood in line, waiting to purchase the particular secret item I'd gotten up early for, I had to step out of myself and look at us, all of us, who were there to get that perfect item for that special someone. Or were we there simply to get "a deal" on the lastest, flattest, shiniest, coolest thing we just had to have?

It's the day after Thanksgiving and I wonder, "Is this really what the next month will be about?" The guy who enters the store glances at the line in the section of the store he was heading toward, and curses. "Now what am I supposed to do!?" he asks himself and everyone else, none too quietly. "Get in line like the rest of us!" an equally frustrated woman behind me mutters under her breath.

"Merry Christmas" I thought. "Merry stinkin' Christmas."

Now I know that this little diatribe about "the real meaning of Christmas" or "the reason for the season" is cliche. But doesn't it say something about who the real gods of this culture are? Is anything bigger than commercialism, consumerism and materialism?

And don't think I consider myself holier than thou. Remember, I'm standing in line at 5:30 in the morning as I ask the question.

And how do we stand up against it? Do we NOT buy ANYTHING for ANYONE this year and tell them we're takin' Christmas back from Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy?

I hear various pundits drone on about the "war on Christmas" like the idea of saying "happy holiday" is the real culprit. What about people who "celebrate" it by perverting it into a buying orgy of flat screened tvs, mp3 players, wii game systems, sweaters, or whatever?

We try to set limits in our family on spending. We talk to the kids constantly about being stewards with their money and their time and their abilities. We encourage pro-bono babysitting and looking for opportunities to give away and share with others.

Is that enough?

Well, I was next in line. I made my purchase. I walked back to the car, drove home, and it wasn't even 6:30. I guess I'll lie down and get some sleep.

I wish there were some easy answer.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Getting Pounded: A Thanksgiving Tale

11 totes on my doorstep.

That's what I found when I arrived home last night around 9PM. 11 totes and 1 cooler.

Who left them and what was in them?

As I got closer I noticed the note that had been printed off on someone's computer. It read:

"You've been Pounded!
Dear Pastor and family, please accept this collection of items for your food pantry. We hope this will keep you well fed for a long while!
Love, your church family"

My kids started ripping into it like it was Christmas morning!!

"Here's a ham!"

"Look at all the breakfast stuff!"


"This one's REALLY heavy!"

On and on the exclamations went as each of us poured through all of the containers.

This morning as I sit here postponing sorting through all of it and carrying all of the canned goods downstairs several thoughts run through my mind.

- "Who orchestrated all of this?"

- "Who in our congregation could use some of this. We're so blessed. I know that there is a dad who's been out of work for several months. They would probably enjoy getting 'pounded' (shorthand for 'food pounding' if you're unfamiliar with churchspeak)

- Words to my kids about how blessed we are to have a church family so kind and generous only go so far. (I keep telling 'em everyone doesn't have the same positive experiences with churches that they've had.) But an action like this is a memory they'll take away with them for the rest of their lifetime. I hope when they grow up and find a community of faith, that they work to make it as warm and welcoming as this one has been to them. Apparently Someone decided this was just the right time and place for them to acquire such a story to tell.

- This came at a great time for my wife too. She had really been giving over and above the usual (which is already a pretty amazing amount of time and energy, mostly behind the scenes with stuff people don't know about). In addition, she had gotten up extra early this morning to travel to a hospital where her father was having a heart procedure. Things went well, but she was feeling spent. And Providence decided she could use a tangible pick-me-up.

"The earth is the LORD's, and all that is within it, the world and all who live in it." (Psalm 24:1)

We were just privileged to catch this particular "pounding" of God's blessing.

May you have eyes to see the many gifts you've been given. And may you have people come into your life every now and then who warm your heart and lift your spirit through their generosity...even if it's a POUNDING.

Grace & peace.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Monday: Remembering A Perfect Saturday

Saturday was a nearly perfect night.

My parents, sister & brother-in-law came over to celebrate Mom's b-day with us.

We enjoyed homemade lasagna, garlic bread, salad, and a california mix of veggies. (I did a lot of the cooking, but my wife knows JUST how to plan the menu.) It was delicious. (I haven't eaten yet today and now I have to wipe the drool off the keyboard.)

After dinner we gave Mom a couple of small gifts. Then we cut up the birthday pie (apple +), scooped the accompanying ice cream, and divided up into 2 rooms: football fans (for the OSU vs. U-M game), and fireplace fans. Strangely enough, the divide also was by gender, though that was unintentional, I think.

Being the host, I kind of made my way back and forth between the 2 rooms. When I'd hit a commercial break or the Buckeyes would look like they had things in hand, I'd move into the living room to throw another log on the fire and chat with the non-football-watching-members-of-the-family.

Pretty cool to watch my wife, daughters, mom, and sister converse. The fireplace seemed to provide the perfect backdrop to describe the ambiance of the evening: warm and glowing.

The end of the game came. My team won! (Go Bucks! [yes, I live 15 minutes from Ann Arbor.) The whole crew piled into two vehicles and headed over to the high school where we watched my daughter in the high school production of "Children of Eden".

At a break in the production, a couple of girls seated directly in front of us, commented upon how much they liked my daughter (not knowing that her family was directly behind them!). I had to have a bit of fun. I said, "Don't you think that girl is a PAIN?!"

I must have been smiling when I said it because after an initial startling, the one girl responded, "Are you her father? I think she's COOL!!"

We enjoyed a brief conversation. I made sure to find out their names so I could relay the story to my daughter as accurately and detailed as she'd demand.

The play ended. The family went home. And all seemed right in the world.

That was Saturday.

Today is Monday. Things have devolved into a little less than perfect. But simply taking 15 minutes to recount the smells, sounds, smiles, and sights of Saturday gives me the peace to clear my mind of all the crud, focus on what really matters, and move on.

My religious tradition emphasizes the principle of sabbath ("the institution or observance of a day of rest" says Funk & Wagnall's). I am glad to take such a break, mentally, if not physically, today. I'm glad for the opportunity to "clear the slate" and retarget my heart and life. Funny how such a pause can restore needed energy and passion.

Eugene Peterson writes that sabbath reminds us the world can go on for 1 day each week without us pushing, pulling, prodding, or worrying. The world was here before I came on the scene and it will be here after I exit the stage.

Good thought. Not one that makes capitalism steamroll along. But one that can bring the hurried and the harried to balance.

Here's to you building sabbath into your life.

Grace & peace.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A High School Musical

My oldest daughter, a sophmore, is in the high school musical this weekend.

Last night was the first performance of "Children of Eden".

Have you ever seen this production? It is an adaptation of the creation & flood story in Genesis.

Beyond the usual fatherly pride, I was struck by two thoughts as I watched and listened.

First, in the musical, Adam & Eve (the first created humans), refer to God as "Father". This name for God continues throughout the story. This is interesting because in the Genesis account, this title is no where to be found. God is referred to as Creator and other less personal names.

"Father" reminded me of the intensely personal nature of the Creator to those He has created; that One who made us is so much more than simply a detached architect or engineer who constructed something. He is a Person who created other people in His image to be in relationship with Him; to laugh, to cry, to share, to talk, to yell...the stuff of life with people.

Jesus teaches his disciples to call God "Father". "The Lord's Prayer" begins "Our FATHER..." (which is the same title many give the prayer.)

I wonder if some would see this as a "Christianizing" of the Genesis account. Maybe so. However, I found this to be a powerful description of what I believe Scripture teaches about the relationship God desires with people.

The second thought was this: the same problem plagues Adam & Eve that later plagues their boys (Cain & Abel), and later plagues Noah, his family, and the people living during his time. Namely, they all want something that they have been told is forbidden. In the musical, the exact same words are used as each person promises NOT to give into temptation. And the same words are used again to justify why they did break their promise.

Each time the vow is broken, the breaker is surprised by the extent to which the damage they have caused will go. Things rapidly spiral out of their control, each time, to their great amazement.

This "echo" becomes more and more powerful throughout the evening as the words are remembered and the previous situations are recalled. The audience is reminded that the situation of Noah's sons is similar to that of Adam's sons which is similar to God's first children.

As a storyteller, I thought the dialogue was quite effective, tightly wrapped and made quite an impact. It reminds me that maybe the dilemma I find myself in is not that new or unique. That the temptation you face is probably the same basic issue that has plagued humanity since our inception.

One last thought. There is a line close to the end of the musical that tells us we're not so far down the road yet that we can't turn around. It suggests that part of being "made in the image of God" is the capacity to join in creating. We have been given the gift to help shape our future.

May we use that power wisely.

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sometimes Even The Church Can't Mess It Up

You may have noticed the quote at the top of the blog by Martin Luther. (The 16th century reformer, not the 20th century civil rights leader. That would be Martin Luther KING, Jr. Though I don't think the simiarity to names is an accident)

The quote goes something like this,

"The Church is a whore, but she's my mother."

That quote sums up the fact that often the church has been at its worst, causing violence and perpetuating institutions and actions that actually harm, rather than redeem.

But even in the darkest hour, there have been reformers, prophets who have called the remnant back to the basics of what she was intended to be. There were those who believed we were capable of something more, something so much better.

Well I've witnessed a little bit of it this week in our local community.

We have a single mom who's going in for surgery. She is heroic. She works 2 jobs, sometimes more. Scratched and clawed and saved enough and providentially was able to buy a little bungalow for her and a teenage son.

Today she's going in for surgery and will be off of work for several weeks.

This morning I had several of the ladies at church remind me that we need to step up and help her out. They were mothering her and me, in the best sense of the word. I assured them we were on top of it and had started the process of getting meals ready for the family.

Sunday when we announced a need for folks to sign-up and bring meals, the first person to volunteer was a young lady. She lives 40 minutes away from our church, but started attending 4 weeks ago. The distance requires that the family leave their home by about 9 AM, on a day they could just as easily sleep in. And as a 2-career couple, they'd probably enjoy a few extra hours of sleep. But no, not on Sunday. For the past 4 weeks they've gotten up early on Sunday, jumped in the family vehicle, and headed 40 miles down I-94. And this past Sunday, she volunteered to bring a meal to a family she's never met.

I don't know about you, but that seems to me to be the type of thing Jesus intended when he said, "whatever you've done to the least of these my brothers, you've done it unto me."

THAT is the type of story that makes me think there is still hope for the Church.

THAT is the type of story that makes me hope you'll keep looking till you find (and help create) such a place, if you have been tempted to give up on "organized religion". (And really, who of us hasn't?)

Grace & peace

Monday, November 13, 2006

I Didn't Know What I Was Missing!!

When's the last time you discovered how much you'd been missing in an area of your life? I'm interested in knowing. If you have an answer, please respond. What was it you'd been missing and how did you discover it?

If you DONT' have an answer to that question, maybe you need something new, a break-through, an awakening, an "AHA!" moment. Read on.

I had one recently.

It was in the area of computers. Specifically, it was with high-speed wireless.

We've been using an old computer for so long. And we have dial-up. So I don't have to describe to most of you how slow that is. But suffice it to say that I'd often hit ONE KEY and then walk away to do something else or finish reading that paragraph. (I'm not kidding. That's how slow it is. One time when I was at my office, my 12-year-old was with me, waiting for me to send this ONE e-mail. We started counting how many times we could walk back and forth across the room before the next screen would appear. I think we got to 40, though in truth, the room wasn't too big.)

But today I'm typing on a high-speed wireless hook-up, on what is to us, a new computer.

I didn't know what I was missing!!

I type "send" and it is sent.

I go to quit a program and it actually shuts down before I can forget WHAT the program was that I was working on. Amazing.

If this is the information highway, I had previously been on the horse-and-buggy trail. And not a speedy, quick lightning horse either. One Seinfeld would call Gluestick.

In my faith tradition, there is a lot of talk about newness. New heavens and new earth. New life. New birth.

And it isn't just talked about, either. It is PROMISED.

New things can show you how much you've been missing. A new perspective on a problem may bring a solution. A new friend in a situation may end loneliness. A new start in a checkbook that just wasn't balancing out, how great is that?!!

A new translation of the Bible, one you can actually understand, might bring new light.

A new faith community might actually prove that there ARE people living this life the way you thought SOMEBODY should be doing it.

So I wonder, are you open to something or SomeOne new?

You don't know what (or Who) you might be missing.

Grace & peace

Friday, November 10, 2006

2 Widows & comm-I-tment

Is it just me or are we not willing to commit to anything? The idea of promising to join a group or be at a particular place at a particular time causes many of us to get nervous or worried. Rather than saying "yes" we'd rather say, "let me check my calendar" or "I'll have to get back to you on that." Sometimes we really DO need to check our schedule. Other times we're HOPING that something will intervene to keep us from having to say yes and nail down our time, our money, or our allegiance.

I enjoy writing. But even making it to this blog on a regular basis can be difficult. (I just noticed it has been 2 weeks since I was here last! And the last time I blogged, I had a couple of other topics I was going to write on.)

I'm not suggesting this to fire up any guilt in particular, I'm just making an observation about us. Well, at least me. I'm not trying to make you COMMIT to such a statement.

I recently came across one of my favorite stories about commitment. It is about a woman named Ruth. She is living in a foreign land with her husband's family. Her husband dies. Ruth is still relatively young. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, who is quite elderly, tells Ruth to go back home to her family and start a new life. (Naomi has recently lost her husband, and two sons, one of which is Ruth's husband.)

But Ruth is committed to Naomi. She makes it plain that her mother-in-law can count on her, no matter what. "Don't try and get me to leave you," Ruth says. "Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you make your home will be home for ME. Your family will be MY family. Your God will be MY God. Where they bury you, they'll have to bury me too."

These two widows begin to watch some pretty amazing things happen. A distant relative of Naomi, Bo, takes note of this commitment. It really impresses him. He happens to be quite wealthy and takes a liking to Ruth.

He takes them in, marries Ruth, and the fortunes of all three change forever.

I wonder what it would take for me to be committed to really important things. I wonder what might happen if I determined in my heart, and by God's help, that I'd give priorty to people and things of greatest significance.

I wonder when I'll back to this blog again.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Books, Books, Books

I'm finishing up American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham (managing editor of Newseek magazine). It is a balanced look at how the founders were determined not to let religion overrun the government, but were aware of the fact that religion was a part of the culture and country they were helping to establish.

My father recently me sent me the following note:

"Here is a URL that identifies 50 books that have influenced evangelicals.
Some books that I have read, but most of which I have not read yet.
What's your opinion? What would you add to this list?"

So I was curious. Have you read any of these books? Any of these you recommend?
Any you'd use for kindling?

There are books on this list I'd put on each category.

Interesting that this list is only 20th century. What does it say about us if we are part of a religion that is 2,000 years old (and our Jewish roots go back farther than that) and we're most influenced by stuff that happened a couple of years ago?

Anyway, what books have shaped how you see and interact with God?

Are there any out there now that you'd like to read?

Just curious.

Grace & peace.

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Am I God's Teenager?

We have three teenagers. It seems that on any given day at least 2 of them are mad at me and/or my wife.

Today it happens to be me they're hacked off at and it revolves around a cluster of related issues:

-which kid gets to babysit at which time
-how much mom & I will/won't help with extra-curricular events and how much each individual child has to come up with (based upon what they "just have to have" to make it through this horrible world)
-who can/'t go to a fun event with friends based upon said babysitting schedule
-who is a morning person and who is an evening person
-who might miss an event where a "special friend" might be

Not let me just pause and say my kids are GREAT kids. They get very good grades. They are involved in sports, church, and music. They've made good choices about friends, though they're even liked by other kids too. They're pretty well-adjusted. And the greatest compliment I could give: I'd want to be their friend if I were their age. (Can I stop braggin now?! Wait and see...)

I just think these are the normal wear-and-tear chapters of parent/teen relationships.

The teens are learning that becoming an adult involves all kinds of issues that they had never considered. (You mean someone has to PAY for that dress?) Meanwhile we parents are learning that teens are getting old enough to make some of those decisions, even if we don't agree. (You would really purchase a dress that you'll only, ever, wear ONCE?!)

In the middle of writing this blog, a child who will be "babysat" by one of my kids arrives at our front door. Once in, this energetic 3-year-old is off with the shoes, jabbering about a little plastic camera, ripping off her coat, and asking daddy for one more hug before she tears off around the corner and into our family room.

Oh, for the good 'ol days!

I'm tempted to wish my kids were little again.

I enjoy them (most of the time) too much to do that to them.

And I'm too old to go through potty training or learning to ride a bike again. (Those seemed like such monumental tasks as we went through them. Have you ever prayed for your kid to stop wetting the bed or get the hang of riding a bike?)

So I guess this is where we're at. Maneuvering through uncharted terrain. Curfews, jobs, honesty. Probably all issues MY parents had to deal with. (Ugh. I probably ought to do a little more on Mother's/Father's Day!)

Some days of weepy eyes or angry stares. Sometimes we'll get the silent treatment. Other times it's "anyplace would be better than this" muttered under the breath.

Now as a theologian, a God-talker, I automatically throw this whole soap opera onto the microscope and view it through the "what does this teach me about God?" lense.

So hear it is:

Jesus teaches us to call God "Father". It is possible that I exude many of the same characteristics to God that my kids do to me; some unbelievably selfish and cruel, others incredibly admirable and attractive.

And I trust that my love for my temperamental kids must be a little glimpse into how the Father feels about me. I sure hope so.

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Church "Dropouts" Dialogue

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a survey that talked about "church dropouts" (the phrase used by the surveyors). Below are some responses to that blog.

In between their responses I have some thoughts of my own.

(Julia writes)
"As far as I can try to answer:
-- I think that in the search for what is truly "real" and "genuine" and "fulfilling"... young people get distracted by what is observed on the surface at church, with Christians in general, or through heresay and is easy to paint wide and call organized religion a waste of time. In my observation, when young people are left alone to teach themselves theology, to mature themselves in the faith... what else can they possibly see besides what those around them are like? I've seen more young adults fall away from the faith because of fellow Christians than any other reason."

-- "I would say that when I was challenged to look deeper and think critically, my faith abounded."

(My thoughts) Julia, I agree that just as it is unfair to "leave kids alone" on subjects such as driving or math, it is equally unwise to expect them to figure it all out on their own when it comes to sex, religion, or politics. While they have to decide on their own way eventually, I find that often my retreat from such issues with my own child is due to a lack of having anything of value to contribute. (If I don't know how to do Trigonometry, how can I help them?)

Maybe there is an onus on adults to seek out the answers on some of these issues, such as faith, and have a story or journey worth sharing with young people.


(Joshua writes)
I was raised in church my whole childhood. Ill have to agree with Manny. My experience with God has been more meaningful outside of church. in fact, it wasnt until i "dropped out" of church that I truly got to know God. I know it shouldnt be this way, but i have yet to attend a church that has had something more to offer than "moral support".

Show me a pastor who TRULY walks with God in a Christ-like sense and has the power that i see in the Bible and I will gladly attend his church. I want to grow as a person, not just be a church goer.

(My thoughts) Joshua, I had a very similar experience. I was so disillusioned over my "home church" and the minister there that I left organized religion and had essentially given up on that part of my spiritual life.

As you may have seen from my blog, I'm a "professional pastor" so something happened to change me, my life, and my mind. I'm determined to do my best to be the type of pastor, helping to create the type of church you would attend.

One question I HAD TO ASK MYSELF: Are you willing to be part of such a community of faith (you know, "be the change in the world you want to see") or are you simply going to spend your life as a nay-sayer?

In my continued quest, I have found that while no church/group of people are perfect, amazing things happen when I invest myself with people who also want to "grow as a person"; we work together to build homes w/ Habitat for Humanity, work through divorces, celebrate recovery from addictions, and seek God's power in our lives, as you mentioned. I think God honors such a commitment to community in His name.


(Another reader wrote) I'm looking for a church that doesn't damn homosexuals to hell... I feel like I'm writing an ad or something...

(My response) I wonder how many of us are:
1.) Able to state so succinctly what we're looking for in our church search.
2.) Really looking. I spent a lot of time in my life lamenting or complaining. I was talking about looking, but did little true looking during that time.

My prayer for you is that God will be with you on your journey, speaking to you along the way.


Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts.
Grace & peace.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Gettin' Jiggy & The Creator

I was recently watching "The Actor's Studio" on Bravo. (I go back and forth between that show. Am I being interested in people who analyze their craft or amused at people who take what they do [acting is just pretending] way too seriously?)

On one particular episode, Will Smith was being interviewed. The host, James Lipton, asked Smith to define the word "jiggy". A word, I believe, Smith helped make famous. (Lipton said the word has made certain dictionaries.)

Later in the discussion, Smith said something that I found fascinating. He was asked about being an artist who helps to create things, words, characters, and stories and he referenced The Creator.

Smith mentioned that what he did was simply an extension of that One who is First Cause. And he attributed his talent and work as a natural outgrowth of a creative person made by a Creative Being.

I found that self-understanding thoroughly consistent with a God who made the world, made people in the world, and then gave them the ability to create things on their own. Not that I'm blaming God for all of our choices and how we choose to use our creative freedom.

But scripture says, "Every good and perfect gift comes from God." And that "Fullness of the earth" and all that is in it come from God.

So maybe next time I watch "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" or "Men In Black" I'm mixing theology with entertainment?

Or maybe I'm just looking for a way to kill an hour or two.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Are You a Church Dropout?

A recent study by the Barna Group says that 81% of twentysomethings spent a significant amount of time in their teen years at church or church-related activities.

They went on to say that 75% of teens discuss religion or spiritual things with their peers and more than 50% have attended a religious activity or group event within the last quarter.

But the same study says that disengagement happens between the end of the teen years and age 30.

While 20% maintained the same level of spiritual involvement as when they were teens, 80% said there was a significant decline or complete absence of spiritual activity.

It got me to thinking:

- Has the Church failed to provide meaningful interactions for people in the realm of faith?

- Have young people given up on "organized religion" because they were turned off by something/someone they encountered?

- What role does the family influence play? (I know teachers who bemoan the fact that 5 days a week, 6 hrs. a day is NOT enough to educate young people in the area of academics. Imagine what just how hopeless 1 HOUR A WEEK seems to those who are expected to do spiritual formation in the lives of those same teens.

- What's your story? Were you part of the 80% who had some relgious training or experience in your teens? If so, have you maintained that level of attention to your spiritual life? If not, what would it take for you to recover that part of your life?

- If you have never spent a significant part of your life in a faith community, what would it take for you to investigate and search one out?

Grace & Peace.


The following is from the Barna Research Group:

Image courtesy of BarnaFilms. click for info
Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years
September 11, 2006

(Ventura, CA) - Transitions in life are rarely simple. Some of the most significant and complex shifts that people undergo occur during the transition from adolescence to early adulthood. An important part of that maturation is the refinement of people's spiritual commitment and behavior.

A new study by The Barna Group (Ventura, California) shows that despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years - and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.

Teens Embrace Spirituality.
Teenagers thrive on fresh experiences and new perspectives. The spiritual dimension gives teens a fertile ground for their explorations.

50% of teens attend a church-related service or activity in a typical week.

More than75% discuss matters of faith with peers and 60% teens attend at least one youth group meeting at a church during a typical three month period.

33% of teenagers say they participate in a Christian club on campus at some point during a typical school year. There is also a substantial amount of unorthodox spiritual activity: three-quarters of America's teenaged youths have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity during their teen years (not including reading horoscopes).

Still, one of the most striking findings from the research is the broad base of opportunities that Christian churches in America have with to work with teenagers.

81% teens say they have attended a church for a period of at least two months during their teenage years. This represents substantial penetration and significant prospects for influencing the nation's 24 million teens.

But Disengagement Happens
At the same time, the Barna research underscores how fleeting that influence may be: twentysomethings continue to be the most spiritually independent and resistant age group in America. Most of them pull away from participation and engagement in Christian churches, particularly during the "college years." The research shows that, compared to older adults, twentysomethings have significantly lower levels of church attendance, time spent alone studying and reading the Bible, volunteering to help churches, donations to churches, Sunday school and small group involvement, and use of Christian media (including television, radio and magazines).

In fact, the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings - 61% of today's young adults - had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying).

Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences. Another one-fifth of teens (19%) were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith.

So based on the above data from Barna, I wonder:

- Has the Church (whatever denomination or persuasion you may come from, if you're part of the 80% who were "churched" as a teen) failed to bring you to a place where interaction with others in this area of your life is relevant and exciting?

- How many of that 80% had little/no support at home? We often hear teachers bemoan the fact that they need parental help to get the educational job done because 6-7 hrs. at school each day isn't enough. Compare that with the 1 hr we often give the church and expect them to do the job of helping to shape our young people

- What is your story? Were you raised in church? Was it a significant part of your life? Is it still today? What would it take for you to consider heading back to a faith community?

Grace & peace.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Lessons on Prayer from Jill Carroll

"Through all the weeks and months I hadn't prayed. I thought it would be hypocritical...I hadn't been to church in a long time."

Those are the words of Jill Carroll, kidnapped/released reporter who had spent some time in Iraq.

I have been reading the eleven-part series as it plays out in our local newspaper (The Ann Arbor News). [My twelve-year-old son was telling me that he'd been reading it sentence at a time as he bags his papers for his paper route!)

It got me asking some questions: "What does God think about us praying only when we're in trouble?"

"If I haven't been thanking God for stuff up till now, can I really expect my prayers to be heard when I'm deep crud?!"

Here are some thoughts about that.

1.) The Bible constantly shows this whole God-thing, is not primarily rules, but a RELATIONSHIP. Granted, God is unlike anyone else you know, in MANY ways. But I think that good relationships might give us a little insight in how to approach this (and bad relationships might give us insight into how NOT to approach it.)

2.) As a parent, I expect my kids to come to me when they're in trouble, even if we haven't spoken in awhile. Jesus teaches us to call God "Father" so apparently there is to be a relationship like a parent and a child. (Many of the prophets call God the Shepherd, which makes us sheep. Sheep are dumb, and so am I a lot of times. But even THAT is a relationship, right? One provides sustenance and protection. The other eats, sleeps, and is unaware except for the Voice that calls out occasionally. However, we become aware when we're attacked and wonder, "where'd the protection go?")

3.) A healthy relationship might BEGIN when one person is in need of help and the other provides it. I remember meeting Carl for the first time, on the side of a busy freeway in Indianapolis when our family's mini-van broke down in the middle of rush hour traffic. I wasn't going to tell Carl to get back in his pick-up truck because I hadn't sent a Christmas card last year. My emergency and his generosity were how we met. I think God is a little like Carl, always anticipating the opportunity to begin a relationship when the other person's in need. BUT, and this is a big but, no healthy relationship remains on an emergency-only basis for long (other than the police, the Emergency Medical Service, the fire dept., well, you get the idea).

While I DO think that God is willing to be AAA for roadside towing in our life, and that might be how you meet, and God is probably fine beginning a dialogue that way, I guess my hope for you would be that you'd move onto a deeper, more meaningful relationship.

Which brings me to my final thought (for now) on this subject...

4.) The Bible is full of all sorts of examples of relationships between people and God: healthy/unhealthy, those who call anytime (see Psalms)/those who only call when they need help (see the book of Judges), relationships that are just beginning and those that are more fully developing, people who were willing to begin a relationship with God when they needed help (the Prodigal Son)/people who were stubborn and unwilling to cry out (the Prodigal's older bro.) when they had nowhere else to turn.

Jill Carroll overcame her feelings of hypocrisy and prayed:

"God, thank you for getting me through all these days so far. Please just give me the strength to keep going. Stay with my family right now and sit with them and give them strength. I know I never used to come to You before and it's bad of me to come to You now when I really need it. Please, just stay with me right now. Just stay with me right now and don't leave me."

I think that is EXACTLY the prayer she should have prayed.

What prayer might you pray next?

Grace & peace.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

I'm A Man. . .more or less

I just finished the summer task on my "to-do" list that caused me to lose the most our out-building.

It's not that large (12 x 15) and the peak is probably around 20 feet off the ground. So it wasn't a huge job. But I was not looking forward to it. I don't like heights. Don't enjoy being in the sun for long periods of time.

But the main reason is that I'm not a handy, do-it-yourself, fix-it, type of guy.

I have a circular saw. I've owned it since last year. But just took it out of the box for the first time this weekend. This is my first circular saw. I'm nearly 40 years old! (And had to have my friend who helped me re-roof the building show me how to use the saw.)

We needed an air compressor and a pneumatic nailing gun for the job (both of which he owns, neither of which I probably ever will).

I'm the anti-Tim Allen. Not only do I not want "MORE POWER!!" I wouldn't know what to do with it if you gave it to me. Give me anything besides a hammer or screwdriver and I feel pretty useless. I remember growing up when some adult would ask me to get this tool or that instrument, I automatically turned into Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man". I had NO CLUE what they were asking for.

This is one of the many reasons my wife and I are such a great mix. She is known by all friends and family as the fixer in our family. We have totally jumbled up all the traditional male/female at-home chores. Recently someone was admiring all the wood trim work in one of our rooms. They asked how much I did and I could honestly answer "None". It wasn't that she wanted me to help and I didn't. We both simply knew who does what in our house. (By the way, it looks GREAT!)

When I went to replace the kitchen faucet recently, I made sure she had a significant portion of the day open to "help". (In my defense, I DID learn to remove and replace the garbage disposal. [I was very proud of this fact.]) Did I mention that I'm nearly 40 years old?

And I'm just now starting to own circular saws and learning to remove garbage disposals. (I'm still debating whether or now I'm grown up enough to get a chain saw.)

My dad always tried to show me things when I was growing up. I didn't want to learn and now I'm paying for it, I suppose.

To MY son's credit, he's pretty much willing to learn anything I (or my wife!) can teach him about fixing stuff around the house.

What's the spiritual application to all this? I'm not sure, except I think God loves us no matter who we are or who we aren't, no matter what we can or can't do.

I think God likes it when we learn new things and stretch ourselves to places where we don't feel comfortable, because we know it will be good for us or those we love.

So here I sit, with my laptop on my achy knees, sore back, and sun-burned face. Hoping I don't have to get up anytime soon (because I'm not sure I can!). Feeling like I've accopmlished a pretty good-sized task today.

Here's to trying something new. Like trying one more time to find a church. Reading a difficult author. Starting that exercise regimen. Or beginning a savings account.

Now if I can only remember what I had to do to re-asphalt my driveway...

Grace & peace

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

What Does God Want from Me??

Ever ask that question?

I’m sure many, if not most of us have wrestled with that one from time to time. In the middle of a quandary about a decision we have to make, or wondering what direction to turn for help and relief, we may pose the query like a frustrated traveler on an unfamiliar road and without a map.

I came across a scripture recently that gave me some encouragement on the subject. 1 Samuel 3:1 reads:

“…And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation.” (NKJV)

“How could THAT verse bring comfort?!” you are probably wondering. Here are two reasons.

First, the verse describes a time long, long ago when God is getting ready to speak. And, interestingly enough, God is getting ready to speak through a child; a child who “did not yet know the LORD, nor was the word of the LORD yet revealed to him” (3:7). He is an unlikely choice indeed!

The second reason I find this passage encouraging is that the teaching of the Church through Scripture is that we no longer live in an age when the word of the LORD is rare. We believe that since Pentecost (Acts 2), God’s Spirit is readily available to “whoever calls upon the name of the LORD”.

So here’s the Good News:

1. If God’s activity has seemed to be absent or infrequent in my life, maybe He is getting ready to act.

2. If God’s word has seemed rare in my life, quite possibly it has more to do with ME than God. Maybe He is waiting for me quiet my heart and mind through silent waiting in prayer. Maybe He is longing to meet me in reading the scripture. Maybe He has something special for me in the next gathering of my church family in worship or a small group.

May God help me get ready to hear His word for my life.

Grace & peace,
Pastor Jeff

Saturday, July 29, 2006

What Would You Spend A Week on a Roof For?

What REALLY matters in life? For what are you willing to suffer? Anything or anyone you'd pay dearly to nurture or protect? Is it a person? A dream? What would you spend a day on a roof for?

I was reminded what commitment costs this week in a couple of places.

The first was a survey of married/divorced couples. I can't remember who did the study so I'm not able to site the source (but if you're reading this on the internet, YOU KNOW IT MUST BE TRUE!!) The study said that married couples did NOT have fewer troubles, problems or fights than divorced couples. Their troubles, problems and fights were not any smaller, either.

So what allowed married couples to stay together? The researcher concluded it was 1 thing...

"Stubbornness" (if you want to call it what it is), or "Commitment" (if you want to put a little perfume on it and make it sound all rosy). Their attitude seems to be, "I've invested in this, I've made this promise, I'M not leaving!"

Call it what you will, they were more determined, as a whole, than those who became divorced. (I know there are always exceptions to this rule, but on the whole, I think this is probably true.)

Speaking of determined, read this story I came across this week:

Nashville children's pastor takes to roof to raise money for sports ministryNashville-(Nashville Tennessean)

Those at Nashville's Grace Church of the Nazarene believe a new youth soccer program for the community was worth a few days on the roof. On July 9, Children's Pastor Dustin Bilbrey went up to the Grace Church of the Nazarene roof until the $3,000 (U.S.) needed for sets of soccer goals and other equipment for the soccer program was raised. The total went to just more than $3,000 on July 12 toward the conclusion of that evening's service and Bilbrey came down about 8 p.m.

"I told somebody I'd do whatever it took,'' Bilbrey said. "It was really hot, but it was worth it because we can buy the goals and reach out to the community. If I had to sweat a little …''

Bilbrey had a tent for shelter, as well as a sleeping bag, some electric fans, an ice cooler, and study materials to work on the master's degree he's seeking from Trevecca Nazarene University.

Read More --Nashville Tennessean

Now is it just me or is this guy stubborn and committed? He has this thing stuck in his mind that this is the most important thing in the world at this moment. And he's willing to turn his life upside down to accomplish his goal.

I wonder if this is the type of stubbornness or commitment Jesus was talking about when he nearly tries to discourage people from becoming his followers when he says, "If anyone wants to be my disciple, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." (Could it be that if this question were asked more often, the church would be filled with fewer hypocrites, making it more difficult on those living authentic, Christ-like lives?)

If you are like me, that sort of statement leaves you scratching your head and asking, "Do I REALLY want to do this?" Most days I answer "YES!" Some days it's more of a whisper "yeah, i guess so" or a barely audible "uh-huh".

May you find (or be found) by something (or Someone) that is worthy of such commitment (stubborness!)

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Baseball & God: Love &...Not

I think it's time to break it off. I have a mistress. I've loved her for years. I knew her before I met my wife. I kept on seeing her even when we got married. Now, here I am, airing my laundry in public, just like one of those losers on Jerry Springer.

My mistress is baseball. It has been a part of my life for years. I remember playing in the backyard with neighborhood kids. I remember riding up to the school field with 1 other kid and we'd hit each other flyballs. I remember taking a tennis ball and a bat and playing 2 on 2 at the junior high school parking lot, throwing up against the wall where we had drawn a chalk outline of a strikezone. And I remember playing whiffle ball with my neighbor.

I remember listening to the local radio station 2 times a week to hear a local sports broadcaster give the final score to our games and see if he'd mention my 4 rbi's or my stellar pitching performance. (I think we actually recorded some of those broadcasts on cassette tapes. They must be great quality.)

Occasionally I pull out the local press clippings of my "career". I wowed my wife and kids with what a great athlete I was.

But my body and my skills and my opportunities went by the wayside. So I turned to SOFTBALL. It was the best I could do. It wasn't fastpitch. Then I went from playing the best around to "church leagues" (codeword for "lesser competition").

(When I admit playing softball, I think of Jim Rome's "softball guy". An overcompetitive, takes this thing way too seriously stereotype. I'm not THAT guy...usually.)

Monday night I was pitching for my church team and this gorilla sent a line-drive-rocket back at me on the pitcher's mound. Now, I know that I should be in a defensive stance after releasing the ball. (Your feet should be spread about shoulder-width, two hands up, ready to react.) I KNOW this, but I wasn't in the stance, nor was I ready for the rocket. So...

The gorilla bounces his rocket-shot off of my left thigh. It reached our thirdbasewoman (did I mention the league is co-ed?) on a hop. Two days and several ice packs later, the bruise is the size of a soccer ball (football for the non-Americans). But I think more bruised than my thigh is my sense of pride. And now I wonder: is it time to let this softball, the last vestige of baseball, go?

I LOVE baseball. I've accepted underhand, slow-pitch, softball, a watered down version of the real thing, in my estimation. But maybe it has served its purpose in my life.

Sometimes I feel that way about faith. I am currently reading through the Bible. (By the way, how many people who reject the Bible have NEVER READ IT ALL THE WAY THROUGH?? I mean, can you really dismiss a whole religion, with thousands of years of history, without investigating it for yourself.)

Anyway, I'm in the book of Joshua. Not a place for the pacifists among us. There is significant violence. The Hebrew people take the city of Jericho. They take the people in the surrounding cities.

But in chapter 8 they stone a guy to death and set "his sons, daughters, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and his tent, all that he had...on fire."

Now, this guy, his name is Achan, had caused trouble for the community and all the nation. Achan had stolen stuff and then hid it from the group. We can agree that he deserved to be punished and that he had brought trouble on everyone else in his group. But stoning? And setting everyone/thing else in his home on fire? Really??

So what are we to make of this?

Well, let me start out by saying that I'm not the Answer Man. I don't have all the answers. I don't think that faith can be all wrapped up in a neat little package with a bow and ribbon on it. I think faith is often messy and unruly, kind of like trying to get the extension cords separated that my kids put away last time. You untangle and untangle and get it untangled enough to use it, though maybe not all the way straightened out.

Now if that sounds like a probably is.

I think Joshua 8 teaches us that God is not simply a God of love. That God is also a God of justice. A God who sets up particular laws and then says, "there are consequences for messing them up." Or "mess up here and you mess up your world too." We could talk about big picture items like the environment or social structures (families, marriages or the poor and prejudice and discrimination).

But none of that helps out poor Achan.

Well, I'd like to give it a little more time and thought, but I've got a softball game.

Grace & peace.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Grease, Summer, Slavery, and Sabbath

Have you seen the musical/movie "Grease"?

I have to confess that I'm not an expert on the subject. But I HAVE watched more of it than I'd care to admit, though never having seen the movie all the way through. (My wife and daughters think it is "the ginchiest" and have occasionally been watching it as I walk in and out of the room.)

One thing I DO remember about the movie is the way an encounter between Olivia Newton John and John Travolta over the summer break, is retold once they get back to school. If I remember correctly, Travolta is too cool to tell his friends exactly the way that it happened. Getting back to school makes him remember his reputation, and he has to reinterpret the story to maintain the cool factor.

I find summer does the same to me. It messes up my life, or more specifically, my routine.

During the other nine months of the year, I keep a pretty regular schedule (though for a minister, "regular" is often still quite fluid with trips to the hospital, impromptu counseling sessions, funerals, and other unexpected activities). But that aside, I get to particular tasks with some regularity.

One of the worst hits my routine takes during the summer is the computer. The blog and the e-mail are the most severe casulaties. During the fall/winter/spring I'm at the computer regularly. (Not at "addict level", mind you.) But a couple of times a day, Mon.-Thur. And once or so on Sat./Sun. I get to the computer. (Fri. is my day off. And with the exception of fantasy football [yes, I'm one of those geeks, {but not at an "addict level", mind you}], I don't turn on the computer.)

But the summer is crazy. I have little or no set schedule. I go days without communicating with people on e-mail, without checking in at my blog, without seeing who's doing what. (Mamacita, thanks for forwarding the Wittenburg Door e-mail!)

Now here's the weird thing. With the exception of my blog readership being down, NO ONE SEEMS TO MIND. I haven't had ONE PERSON complain, give me an inquisitive, "Where have you been?" or an indignant "I've been waiting for you to respond!!"

So here's what I'm wondering. Are we all too closely tied to our communication devices? Are we slaves of our cell phones, pagers, PDA's, e-mail, etc.? Are we too concerned about getting that message or answering that call? How often is it really life-or-death? How often is it much less significant?

In Exodus, God seems to anticipate this sort of thing when doling out the Ten Commandments. #4 reads: "Remember to observe the Sabbath to keep it holy. Six days a week are set apart for your daily duties and regular work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God."

Now if you grew up in a tradition like mine, they liked to make lists of things you can't do. And the whole Sabbath thing becomes a bit of a drag, a giant wag-of-the-finger exercise. (I remember one friend of mine saying he'd given up playing tennis with the family on Sun. afternoons because the minister frowned upon it.)

Anyway, my recent experience reminded me that the intent of Sabbath was maybe much more beneficial to me than a mere prohibition. Maybe it is the intent of Sabbath to remind me, as Eugene Peterson writes, that the world can go on without me...without me answering my e-mails and blogging for ONE DAY. That the world was here before I came and will most likely be here after I'm gone. That me and my tasks aren't nearly as irreplaceable as I'm duped into believing. That the world is not so fragile as to fall apart when I take an extra 24 hrs. to see what spam I've rec'd about the latest male anhancement formula, mortgage deal, or gambling-online opportunity.

So take a Sabbath. Use 1/7 of your week to cease from work, labor, honey-do lists, and chores. Take 1 day out of 7 and use it to recreate your mind, body, and spirit. Could be the best thing you've done all week. You could even use it to watch "Grease".

Grace & peace.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Jim Rome & Jesus

One of my favorite passtimes is listening to sports talk radio. And one of the most entertaining talk shows is "The Jim Rome Show". I have to admit that I'm "a clone" and enjoy being "in the jungle".

The other day Jim was ranting about a particular professional baseball player, a pitcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers, I believe. This pitcher had begun a program to help less fortunate kids attend Major League Baseball games. (I think it was called the "45 Club" or some such name, in recognition of the players uniform number, and the number of kids he'd pay for each game.)

Sounds great, so far, right? Well hold on a minute. There were a few caveats.

First, the kids were only attending games in which this guy pitched. (He is a "starting pitcher", so he only pitches once every five games.) No biggie, I suppose.

Second, when he was yanked from the starting lineup, "demoted" to the bullpen and turned into a reliever, this great philanthropist YANKED the program. No more freebies for the kiddies! (Apparently if HE'S not pitching, the kids wouldn't be interested.)

Third, when he was reinstated as a starter again, he decided NOT to RESTART THE PROGRAM because, (and this was the point Rome was railing against) HE WASN'T GETTING ENOUGH CREDIT!!

Imagine, a multi-millionaire, who could do a few kids some real good, but refused because people weren't NOTICING WHAT A GREAT GUY HE IS. People weren't paying him enough attention for being generous. The media and others weren't reporting on what a GREAT, and MAGNANIMOUS GUY he is. He wasn't getting any love, any "pub".

"Well" Rome said on his nationally syndicated show, "guess you got some publicity now, didn't you?!" (I didn't see it that evening, but I wondered if he mentioned it on his nationally televised show "Rome is Burning" on ESPN too.)

The "take" about this spoiled, selfish prima donna did make my blood boil. But it also got me thinking:

"How often do I do things for others with NO thought or care about getting 'credit' or drawing attention to myself." Probably not nearly often enough.

Rome contrasted this small-hearted (no-hearted?) act with that of another athlete. Warrick Dunn, professional football player for the Atlanta Falcons, has provided new homes for people (usually single moms, I think). He has been a one-man "Extreme Home Makeover". And he seems to do it without caring whether or not people notice. But they do notice.

Kind of reminds me of what Jesus said about himself to his followers, people who would want to be like him. Jesus told them he "came not to BE SERVED, but TO SERVE, and to GIVE his life as a ransom for many". He also told his followers, "you do that for each other" (after he had modeled the servant's life by washing their dirty, smelly feet).

There are two ways to do life in this world:

1.) Expecting to BE SERVED (even as we give or provide charity)



I'm thankful for people like Warrick Dunn and people like Jesus. Their selfless lives make this world a better place. They make us better people. I pray for strength and love that will help me be like them.

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

High-Pitched Ring Tones and Unhearing Ears

In the news the last couple of days has been a story about high-pitched ring tones. Apparently young ears are better able to hear certain pitches than older ears. This has been discovered by industrious, young, entrepreneurs who are capitalizing off of this information. They're marketing ring tones to students who don't want teachers to know they're text-messaging during class. They're marketing ring tones to kids who don't want their parents to know they're receiving calls.

"If a cell phone doesn't make a noise can it be ringing?!" Sounds like a deep, philosophical question some ancient, Greek thinker might have asked.

There are a lot of places in the Bible where "hearing" is important. Many times Jesus or others say/write, "Let him who has an ear hear..."

Have you ever reflected back upon a conversation with another person, sort of comparing notes, and one of you says to the other, "I didn't hear that at all"? Sometimes spiritual life is like that.

The spiritual ancestors of my tradition teach us that the ability to hear is a gift. Sometimes we don't hear anything and we think no one is speaking. We assume there is no noise. But maybe we're wrong. Maybe if we haven't heard anything in awhile, (or ever), it's because we are unable to hear. My prayer for you today is that Someone would open your ears, give you a keener sense of hearing, and you'd be ready to pick-up conversations that are happening around you each and everyday.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

666 & the Omen

I remember one time when I was growing up, a friend of mine was about to get back $6.66 in change and decided he needed to buy something more/less to remedy the amount of money he was dealing with. 666. "It's evil!" He avoided it like the plagues (pun intended).

Ever wonder what the big deal is about 666? (And why the marketing "geniuses" decided to release "The Omen" on 06/06/06?

It comes from Revelation 13:18. (Revelation is the last book in the Bible. It is apocalyptic literature, [revealing things that are hidden], often dealing with events in the future. However, to be fair, much of what the first hearers understood has little or nothing to how you or I would read it today.)

Revelation is also very image-oriented. You see beasts, a dragon, a Lamb, angels, creatures of mixed animals/characteristics. Bad guys are bad. Good guys are good. All you have to do is hear the description of them and you know who's who.

"The power of a book can be seen in what it does to people, and few books have affected people more dramatically than Revelation. In positive terms, Revelation has inspired countless sermons, theological treatises, artistic works, and musical compositions ranging from the triumphant 'Hallelujah Chorus' (Handel's Messiah) to the gentle strains of 'Jerusalem My Happy Home.'

"On the negative side, it has fed social upheaval and sectarian religious movements that have often foundered and misguided attempts to discern the date of Christ's return." (Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things)

In a NUTshell, many of the nuttiest people who call themselves "Christian" have nested there. Many have made this the playground for boredom or become addicted to "figuring out who the antichrist is". The list throughout Christian history is both scary and hilarious. (God help us if we'd actually ever live like Christ. We'd rather figure out the day he's coming back!)

Within this maze and amazing book appears the number 666. It comes at the end of a description of two beasts. The first beast in 13:1 is a "beast coming out of the sea." It had been struck with a fatal wound but came back to life. (Some similarity with Christ.) This beast slanders God and makes war against good, Godly people, (differentiated from Christ, who never was violent against any person.)

The second beast comes "out of the earth" (13:11). He looks somewhat like a lamb, (a description of Christ), but talks like a dragon (a description of evil, and personified by the devil). The second beast encourages and causes people to worship the first beast, (a form of idolatry [worshiping anything or anyone other than the One, True, Living God]). The 2nd beast forces people to receive a mark or sign of allegiance to the 1st beast, so that people are unable to buy or sell without it.

Revelation 13:18 reads: This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666.

For readers in that time, there are several possibilities of the meaning 0f 666. One possibility is that 6 is just short of 7. Seven is often used as a divine, complete, perfect number. Seven days in a week. Seven spirits surround the throne of God (in Revelation). "6" might be symbolic for a person attempting to act like God; the number for idolatry and usurping the place of The Almighty.

Another possibility might be the use of gematria. Letters were often assigned number values, so that a=1, b=2, etc. This was a commonly accepted way of connecting letters and numbers. The story is told of a street artist in Pompeii who scribbled graffiti, "I love her whose number is 545."

This is all well and good, if you know who the person is speaking about. (For instance, "Neron Kaiser" (Hebrew for Nero Caesar) would add up to 666. The writer could have been telling us "It's Nero all over again!!"

However, if we don't know who 666 is, we are left to speculate...which the church has done ad nauseum...with a wildly artistic flare. (For instance, Hitler, Ronald Reagan Wilson, or "computer" can, and probably have, been labeled as such, using various forms of gematria. [So, apparently, can CUTE PURPLE DINOSAUR, as in Barney!] (Koester 133).

So, suffice it to say we shouldn't be freaking out everytime we come across three 6's aligned neatly in a row. We don't need to worry about getting $6.66 back in change at the store, or being the 666th person into a Detroit Tigers' game.

However, I'm not naming my next kid Damien, nor am I going to waste the $8 to see the movie.

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The Hyphen - What We Value

Did you see the recent survey (I don't remember who it was by, but MSNBC reported it) that most people would prefer to be POOR than gain a substantial amount of weight? We HATE the idea of being fat. (As one who can speak to this subject with some inside knowledge, it IS pretty crappy.) But choosing to be poor? Not have enough money to buy basic items rather than being judged by others because of the way I looked? (Maybe I'm reading stuff into the survey that isn't there.)

In another, unrelated survey conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University, 76% of black men said being successful in a career is very important (compared with 56% of white men). 70% of black men said living a religious life is very important (compared with 44% of their white counterparts).

Having a sociology degree and having spent some time constructing surveys, I tend to be skeptical of numbers. A poorly asked question can render statistics relatively meaningless. (For instance, in the aforementioned survey, what is "a religious life"? Is it living based upon a set of principles? Is it belonging to a group that adheres to these principles? Is it living by your own set of principles? Does it involve principles at all?!)

Even better proof that poor surveying, or poor interpretation of the data, ends up telling us absolutely nothing, was the title of the article as it appeared in the Ann Arbor News, "Black men both optimistic, pessimistic about selves, nation". Talk about newsless and lacking information!

But all this surveying makes me wonder: If surveyed, what would my life say is important? How can a life be surveyed, you wonder?

It is actually relatively easy to tell.

Pull out your calendar, blackberry, daytimer, whatever. What do you spend your time doing? Watching tv? Working? Playing? Acts of service for others? Gaming? Listening to music?

What people matter to you? Do you spend those times by yourself? With others? Or simply thinking about others?

I recently heard retired professional baseball player, Cal Ripken Jr. speak about how important the 25 minute ride to school everyday has become for he and his child. He looks forward to that set time when they get to discuss the significant events in each other's life and share a little time carved out for just them.

Pull out your credit card receipts or your checkbook. How do you spend your money? Books? Vacations? Clothes? Giving to those less fortunate?

What do you spend your time and energy thinking about? What is the first thought you have each day when you wake up? What are the things that fill your mind when you have a little free time? The next meal? Finding that special someone? Seeing a movie? How you're going to conquer that cool new game? Planning a getaway from the rest of life? How to make life easier for your neighbor or someone who is alone and hurting?

Here's the thing. On any typical tombstone are four items:
1. The name of the deceased
2. The year they were born
3. The year they died
4. A hyphen in between #'s 2 & 3

You have no control over #2 or #3. You have a lot of control with what happens in between. The hyphen is yours! Carpe diem! Live today as if it were your last. Make the next five minutes count. Kiss your wife. Hug your kid. Write that poem. Compose that song. Bring a smile to the face of that friend who's hurting with a card or a phone call. Don't wait. Do it now.

Then after that five minutes is over, find a way to do it again.

May you construct the life you've always wanted by doing what matters most now. Shut off the computer. Close the book. And get on with what really counts.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Roger Clemens and Jesus

He's back! They hoped he'd return. They believed he'd return. Today he made it official. Roger Clemens, (Professional baseball player), signed a 1-year deal to pitch for the remainder of the season with the Houston Astros. The deal is reported to be in the $22 million dollar range. He only pitches every fifth day!! And the season is 1/3 of the way over!!

He is probably the greatest living pitcher, whether currently playing or retired. Several teams made high-powered pitches to convince him to come back. Some had promised a private jet to get him to the ballpark from his home. They promised he wouldn't need to travel with the team on road trips to other cities. ESPN broke into its regular programing to make the announcement and the talking heads were only talking about the 1 topic: Roger "The Rocket" Clemens is back!

Now if you're not a baseball fan, this has to seem terribly bizarre. If you're not an Astros fan, this has to be terribly disappointing. All this to-do about this forty-something athlete.

Got me to thinking about another anticipated return.

A basic tenet of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ will return. We believe that he died on the cross, was buried, and that he was raised back to life. We believe he was seen by hundreds of people. We believe that after forty days he ascended into heaven. And we have the hope that he will one day come again.

We believe that at that time, he will set the world right. We believe that there will be a new heaven and new earth; that things will be as they should be. No more hunger. No more sickness. No more crying. No more selfishness, greed, or violence. "The lion will lie down with the lamb."

We believe that he came once as a suffering servant. We believe he will come again as a conquering king. We believe he will welcome those who lived for him to everlasting life and the opportunity to be with him.

Somedays Major League Baseball seems more "real" than relationship with God. (Funny. Saying professional sports seem more real than anything other than professional wrestling seems strange!) But that's the way this world works. The tangible, the measurable, the touchable and the visible get our allegiance and our attention. Often the most important, the unseen, unmeasurable things like love, truth, or beauty get overlooked or ignored.

I wonder if Christians are as excited about the return of the one who laid his life down for us, as Houston Astros fans are about The Rocket?

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

X-Men & Spirituality

Our family went to see "X-3" yesterday. It was so hot, we were all home, seeing a movie is a good thing to do on such a day.

My kids enjoy comic book movies because they are usually books they've read that I haven't. (Last night we watched "Pride & Prejudice". My wife and the girls had read that. My son and I hadn't. [Nor did we make it all the way through the "chick-flick".])

The premise of "X-3" is that there are "mutants" whose genes have altered, giving them "powers". While that seems like a cool thing, it makes the regular humans a wee bit uncomfortable. The people start searching for a "cure" to rid people of their mutant genes. In the movie there is a message about prejudice and discrimination. Some are different from others. Some deal with the differences well. Some don't. Those who don't deal with it well provide the friction that moves the story to a climactic battle between some of the mutants and some of the humans.

As I was watching, I began to run the movie through a "theological" or "philosophical" lense. Sometimes differences and prejudice can pop up in the realm of "God-things": faith, spirituality, etc.

I wonder, do you ever feel like a "mutant" when it comes to God and spiritual things? Do you find yourself not quite sure of various aspects of faith that others simply take for granted?

There's a scripture in the Bible that reads, "Without faith it's impossible to please God. The one who comes to God must believe that He is and He rewards those who seek Him."

That last part is an encouragement to me: "He rewards those who seek Him." It doesn't say, "He rewards those who have figured it all out." Nor does it suggest He loves "those who think they have all the answers" more than those who are struggling with this idea of faith.

God rewards the seeker, the searcher, the explorer, the one who thinks there might be something there, but isn't 100% certain. I like that. I find comfort in it. It encourages me to keep looking, keep asking questions, keep thinking about things, even when I'm not sure what I'll find.

I hope you do the same.

Grace & peace.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sports Nut

What a strange year for our sports teams this has been. The Red Wings (Hockey) and Pistons (basketball) had excellent regular seasons. They had the best records in their respective sports over the 80 or so game season since last fall. But the Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs to a big underdog. The Pistons are on the verge of being eliminated by Lebron James and Cleveland. (I was so disgusted after their last loss that I'm not even sure if I'll watch the pivotal game 6 tonight. Yuck.)

Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers have been the perennial laughingstock of the baseball world for years now. Yet 1/4 of the way through the 162-game season, they have the best record of any of the 30 or so teams. Go figure.


I L-O-V-E sports. I grew up playing them. I grew up watching them. I grew up thinking about them. I grew up dreaming about them. (I wanted to be a professional baseball player or minister when I grew up. [Do you think that is a common combination for young kids?]) Nowadays I enjoy watching my own kids play volleyball, soccer, baseball...whatever. And I love watching sports live or on tv. (ESPN is one of my default channels.)

Here's the quandry: I know it is often a waste of time to watch sports on tv. I know the athletes make a gazillion dollars for hitting a ball, chasing a ball, throwing a ball, whatever, while teachers and other valuable professionals live on a relative pittance. I don't do a lot to support the professional sports "system" financially in a direct way. I rarely go to a professional game. I don't ever buy memorabilia. So am I contributing to the disintegration of the society by being a fan? Maybe it is simply a guilty pleasure. Maybe simply wrestling with the "examined life" is part of the journey.

It seems that in any part of our life (work, relationships, finances, health, entertainment), it would be a good thing to do a self-inventory and ask, "Is this helpful? Is this good? Is this part of my life balanced?" Sometimes I get the sense of confirmation. Sometimes I get a sense of conviction. Sometimes I have no sense at all (pun intended).

Grace & peace.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Da Vinci Code: Breaking Down the Numbers

I came across the following study by the Barna Group and found the data interesting. I feel that way about anyplace sociology and theology intersect. I'm curious to know what you think about this.

- Did you read the book?
- Did it have any impact upon what you believe?
- Will you go see the movie?

Da Vinci Code Confirms Rather Than Changes People's Religious Views
May 15, 2006
(Ventura, CA) - Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code , has sold more copies than any other fictional work in U.S. history. With the release of the movie adaptation on May 19, interest in this controversial tale has risen substantially.
A new nationwide survey by The Barna Group says that the book has impacted millions of lives - but perhaps not in the way that many Christians have imagined.

Broad Reach
According to the Barna research, The Da Vinci Code has been read "cover to cover" by roughly 45 million adults in the U.S. - that's one out of every five adults (20%). That makes it the most widely read book with a spiritual theme, other than the Bible, to have penetrated American homes.
The audience profile of the book is intriguing. Despite critical comments and warnings from the Catholic hierarchy, American Catholics are more likely than Protestants to have read it (24% versus 15%, respectively). Among Protestants, those associated with a mainline church are almost three times more likely than those associated with non-mainline Protestant congregations to have read the book. Upscale individuals - i.e., those with a college degree and whose household income exceeds $60,000 - are nearly four times more likely to have read the book than are "downscale" people (i.e., those without a college degree and whose household income is $30,000 or less).

Perceived Value of the Content
Among the adults who have read the entire book, one out of every four (24%) said the book was either "extremely," "very," or "somewhat" helpful in relation to their "personal spiritual growth or understanding." That translates to about 11 million adults who consider The Da Vinci Code to have been a helpful spiritual document.

To place that figure in context, the Barna study revealed that another recently published popular novel about Jesus Christ - Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt , written by Anne Rice - was deemed to be spiritually helpful by 72% of its readers - three times the proportion who lauded Dan Brown's book.

Changing People's Beliefs
The study also explored whether or not the book caused people to change some of their religious beliefs. Among the 45 million who have read The Da Vinci Code , only 5% - which represents about two million adults - said that they changed any of the beliefs or religious perspectives because of the book's content.

"Before reading The Da Vinci Code people had a full complement of beliefs already in place, some firmly held and others loosely held," explained George Barna, the author of numerous books about faith and culture. "Upon reading the book, many people encountered information that confirmed what they already believed. Many readers found information that served to connect some of their beliefs in new ways. But few people changed their pre-existing beliefs because of what they read in the novel. And even fewer people approached the book with a truly open mind regarding the controversial matters in question, and emerged with a new theological perspective. The book generates controversy and discussions, but it has not revolutionized the way that Americans think about Jesus, the Church or the Bible."

"On the other hand," the researcher continued, "any book that alters one or more theological views among two million people is not to be dismissed lightly. That's more people than will change any of their beliefs as a result of exposure to the teaching offered at all of the nation's Christian churches combined during a typical week."

The people most likely to have altered their religious views in response to the book's content were Hispanics (17% of those who read the book), women (three times more likely than male readers to do so), and liberals (twice as likely as conservatives). Upscale adults were also much more likely than downscale individuals to shift their thinking based on the novel.

The Movie: A Blockbuster?
Industry observers expect the movie to be a hit. But how big of a hit is it likely to be? And what degree of influence is the movie likely to have?
The Barna study indicates that more than 30 million adults are likely to pay for a ticket to see the film - unless the early buzz regarding the film is negative. The company estimates that the movie is poised to break the $300 million box office barrier, based on the current level and intensity of interest expressed by adults. Reaching that plateau would place the movie among the top 20 movies of all-time based upon domestic box office gross revenue.

The statistics reveal that two out of every three people who are likely to see the movie have already read the book. That means more than 10 million adults who have not yet read the book are likely to journey to a theater to see the film.
Barna noted that if the movie has a similar level of influence on movie-goers as the book has had on adult readers, then about a half-million adults could be expected to change one or more of their religious beliefs based upon the movie's content. The most significant impact, he noted, could well be on the young people who see the movie, since their belief systems are still in the process of development and are more susceptible to new teachings. Barna also mentioned the potential effect of the DVD on millions more people who do not see the movie in the theater, but rent or buy it for home viewing after the theatrical run is completed. "We know that in a home setting, young people frequently watch movies over and over, memorizing lines and absorbing ideas that they might not have caught during their first viewing." He also stated that some studies have shown that movies have greater "stickiness" with information than do print materials, possibly making the movie even more influential than the book in terms of long-term impact on people's spiritual development.

The Barna survey also indicates that the audience segments most likely to attend the movie are people under 35; Catholics; Hispanics; and political liberals. On the spiritual side, people who are not born again Christians are almost twice as likely to see the movie as are people whose beliefs classify them as "born again."

Research Details
The data in this report are based on interviews with 1003 adults from across the nation. These telephone surveys were conducted by The Barna Group, during May 2006, based upon a random sample of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In the research, the distribution of survey respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

"Born again Christians" are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "born again."
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a privately held, for-profit corporation that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, weekly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2006.