Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Funnies: Lonely in a Crowd

The Marx Brothers in a scene from "A Night At the Opera".

Where the Treasure Is

In the past few weeks, I have been hit over the head multiple times with a lesson of the obvious.

One source was a Havard Business School Podcast discussing the book, Discovery-Driven Growth. Rita McGrath, a co-author of the book, was discussing business agendas. She suggested that if growth (or anything else) was the priority for a business, it should be one of the first items on the agenda.

The other source was a discussion with a pastor. He said, “Throw away a church’s mission statement. The real way to know what the church believes is looking at its budget.” Where does the church put their financial resources? In a building? In a program?

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). For the institutional church, our treasure is money, time, and talent. Where do we set our priorities in these areas? Our agendas, budgets, and staffing are practical ways in which we establish where our heart will be. As the church plans for the upcoming year, this is certainly some good guidance.

Monday, July 27, 2009

John Calvin and the Excesses of American Patriotism

Did John Calvin have an influence on the excesses of American patriotism? Damon Linker says, "yes," in a blog posting at the New Republic. Considering the Puritan background of many of the first settlers, I'm not terribly surprised that Calvinism has had an impact. Nonetheless, the line that Linker draws between Calvin and the American situation seems tenuous at best.

There were indeed Puritans who claimed that America had a special place in God's providence. Some even described America as the "new Israel" led from slavery into the promised land. There is a natural temptation for such attitudes to devolve into the suggestion of divine approval for a country's actions right or wrong. Linker suggests that we should blame Calvin for this “theological self-confidence” among Americans that borders on “over-confidence.” Sadly, I don't find anything in Calvin's teaching that suggests that he would approve of associating an earthly realm with the Kingdom of God.

Calvin, who described the heart as an idol factory, would understand someone who turns a nation or an ideology into a god. Moreover, he would call it a sin.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Funnies: Classic Lucille Ball

Here is the famous scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel take a job in a candy factory. Could this be a metaphor for pastoral ministry?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Meeting the Lord in the Air

According to a Voice of America report, Buzz Aldrin took communion on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Soon after they landed, Aldrin took a piece of bread and a cup of wine that had been consecrated for communion. The first food eaten and the first cup poured on the moon were communion elements.

Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, wanted to give thanks to God on behalf of all people. The meal was to be a meal of thanksgiving or Eucharist (from the Greek, “eucharistos”). Aldrin wanted to offer a response to God for God's faithfulness. I am deeply moved that Aldrin would want to respond to God in that way.

The VOA report did not delve deeply into the theology, but I was interested in how Rev. Dean Woodruff prepared for the communion service. The article took pains to suggest that this was a “personal” or “private” act. However, it wasn't. In the Presbyterian Church, Communion is a communal act. The Lord's Supper is a sign and seal of our communion with God and with each other.

Several weeks prior to the launch of the Apollo 11, the Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas celebrated communion. After the worship service, a group of elders gathered with Buzz Aldrin. (Aldrin was restricted from contact with too many people.) During that time, Aldrin was given the bread and wine for communion. A benediction was not offered so that the Lord's Supper on the moon was in fact an extension of the worship service in Webster, Texas.

Aldrin on the moon gathered with those Presbyterians in Webster, Texas and with the saints of all time and places. Over 350,000 miles away, Buzz Aldrin remained in the presence of the Lord and the bosom of the Church.

For more information...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Role of Numbers in the Church

Every year, our church sends reports to denominational officials. We send a host of numbers. There are budgets, membership statistics, worship attendance and a host of other facts and figures. Sadly, we do next to nothing with the numbers. They just sit on a shelf gathering dust.

I wonder what would happen if we used the numbers. I know many would balk at the thought. The church they argue is not a business. We can't quantify faithfulness. Attendance or the number of baptisms do not demonstrate the vitality of a congregation. I would agree.

If nothing else my degree in mathematics has shown me that numbers have hidden dangers. As an abstraction, they are useful to make comparisons or calculations, but valuable information disappears when we reduce people or objects to mere number. In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the narrator mentions the subtleties lost when adults are consumed by numbers.
"When you tell [adults] that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, 'What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?' Instead, they demand: 'How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?' Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him."
Another problem resulting from abstraction means that numbers can be manipulated for ill. Scientists have been caught using only data which confirmed their presuppositions and prejudices. Politicians and advertisers have manipulated public opinion with skewed or selective reporting. As Mark Twain once said, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

The Scriptures also suggest a danger of numbers which might surprise some. Numbers can lead to the sin of pride. In the ancient world, taking a census was a sign of control and power. Kings used numbers to coerce populations through taxation and conscription into the army. In the Old Testament, God gave Moses specific instructions relating to a census to curb this temptation. Each person involved in the census had to pay a "ransom" as an offering to God (Exodus 30:11-16). An offering was a costly reminder to the leader that God was really the one in charge. The consequences for failing to follow these rules were severe. For example, King David later took an illegal census, and God punished the kingdom with a plague (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). I could just imagine a church pastor busting with pride as he recites the number of new members added this year. Heck, I have been that pastor.


Nonetheless, we shouldn't ignore numbers. We must be on guard against abstraction, manipulation and pride, but church leaders shouldn't be blind to the results of their ministry.

Perhaps, we are just looking at the wrong numbers. The percentage of members who come to worship might be a more useful statistic than simply attendance. The number of youth who are still active in church after college is much more helpful than numbering the crowd who gathers weekly. I would assume that there are even more creative ways to measure a congregation's impact on the community.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Funnies: Don't Buy Stuff

From Saturday Night Live in 2006. Wonderful advice for the new economy.

Hat tip to Cigars & Theology.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Queen of the Sciences

A long time ago, theology was called the “queen of the sciences”. All the other sciences took their cue from the findings of theology. Those days are gone forever. In the few universities where theology is still studied, no one seems interested in the insights of the theologians. I don’t completely decry the development. Angels dancing on pinheads probably shouldn’t bother physicists, and the weight of a soul shouldn’t consume the debates of biologists. Sadly, many of the modern theological debates seem just as esoteric as their medieval counterparts. No wonder, no one seems interested.

That being said, the pursuit of knowledge could benefit from some basic theological reflection. The sciences can pursue the hows, but only theology (or perhaps her handmaiden, philosophy) can explore the whys. Modern psychology might benefit from a serious reflection on the nature of sin. Business and biology programs should take into account ethical considerations. Our epistemology, paralyzed by subjectivity, could use a little Christian humility. Our schools do not need classes on “Intelligent Design” masquerading as natural science. Instead, we need citizens willing to wrestle with the limits of knowledge and our place in the moral order. The traditional resources and insights of Christian theology are just begging to be used.

You would think that theological reflection would at least be welcome in the church. Alas, even the church is looking for insight elsewhere. Many in the church’s leadership seem more comfortable discussing psychology and business management techniques. Meanwhile the traditional resources of the church--the Scriptures, the liturgy, and the Sacraments--are under-utilized. Theology remains an orphan.

Should the church ignore the insights of the world? I cannot sit in judgment. I read family-systems theory. I am a student of Peter Drucker. I like Thomas Jefferson. Still, I should be uncomfortable. I should allow the gospel to challenge my assumptions. Perhaps the queen shouldn’t lord over the sciences. Theology after all is not God. Instead, maybe the queen at best is prophet. She calls idols by name and counsels repentance. She calls us to follow Christ.

The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Funnies: Charlie The Unicorn

Shun the nonbeliever. Shun.

This is the original video of Charlie The Unicorn, and it remains the best.

Monday, July 06, 2009

"...'Cause when they met, it was murder!"

Thirteen years of adventure, high society, and international intrigue. Happy Anniversary.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Independence Day

Peter Shramm is a professor of political science at Ashland University in Ohio. I heard of Shramm through my wife who is a former student at the university. Shramm was born in Hungary, and his family made the decision to leave after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Shramm describes a wonderful exchange with his father about the decision to leave for America.

"But where are we going?" I asked.

"We are going to America," my father said.

"Why America?" I prodded.

"Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place," he replied.

My father said that as naturally as if I had asked him what was the color of the sky. It was so obvious to him why we should head for America. There was really no other option in his mind. What was obvious to him, unfortunately, took me nearly 20 years to learn. But then, I had to "un-learn" a lot of things along the way. How is it that this simple man who had none of the benefits or luxuries of freedom and so-called "education" understood this truth so deeply and so purely and expressed it so beautifully? It has something to do with the self-evidence, as Jefferson put it, of America’s principles. Of course, he hadn’t studied Jefferson or America’s Declaration of Independence, but he had come to know deep in his heart the meaning of tyranny. And he hungered for its opposite. The embodiment of those self-evident truths and of justice in America was an undeniable fact to souls suffering under oppression.
From the headlines we learn that tyranny and oppression are the norm still in many places. We have much to celebrate this Independence Day. Let's continue to work toward a nation that lives up to her ideals.

This July 4th read the Declaration of Independence.
Check out the National Archives exhibit on the Declaration.

Google Revisited

Jeff Jarvis, the author of What Would Google Do, maintains a blog over at BuzzMachine. A few posts ago, I mentioned his book and asked what the church could learn from it. Apparently, I am not the only one. Jarvis quotes me and two other pastors about the church in the Google Age.

A big thanks to Jarvis, and a shout-out to my fellow pastors, Ron Smith and Chuck Warnock.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Friday Funnies: Who's On First?

This year was the first time my son played Little League. Inspired by his excitement, I am becoming quite a baseball fan. This famous Abbot and Costello routine is one of son's favorites.

Shrinking Churches

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

These aren't usually the verses that one quotes when one is at a church growth conference. In fact there is a dichotomy between the growth of the early church (“..about three thousand were added to their number that day.” [Acts 2:41]) and the hard teachings of Jesus (“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” [John 6:66]).

Pastors often feel pressured to lead their churches into higher and higher numbers. The pressure comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes the pressure comes from parishioners or financial needs. Sometimes it comes from a culture that screams bigger is better.

Attracting a crowd is never enough. Faith and repentance are hard work. Jacques Ellul suggests that the Church will always be small. In his estimation, once the faith becomes a mass movement it devolves into an ideology. Sadly, I do see evidence of this in the wider Christian subculture. We peddle cheap grace while preaching against a few select sins.

Mark Galli, a senior managing editor for Christianity Today, surveys the current megachurch movement and finds similar concerns. He states, “Evangelicals have become the unmatched experts in church growth, but often end up with a truncated gospel.” Galli says that he isn't kidding when suggesting that we need church shrink conferences. As a pastor, I will not be suggesting any time soon that we shrink our congregation. However, church leadership must grapple with the questions he raises.

Many pastors and lay leaders recognize that they are in a superficially successful church, and that it's time to introduce the harder edges of the gospel. But how? How do we get comfortable people to listen to a gospel that includes a lot of discomfort? How do you deepen discipleship without introducing despair? How do you insist firmly on faithfulness without becoming legalistic?

Most important, how do you manage the loss in membership? That will happen.”

Last night, I saw the movie, Romero, about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I've read only a little about the Archbishop, but I have been impressed by his faithfulness in difficult circumstances. The entire country of El Salvador was his parish, and he resisted the temptation to side with one or another. Instead, he stood firmly with Christ. Without compromise, he was pastor to the military, the ruling elite, and the Marxists.

We gather a crowd and then we disciple. Some will be drawn closer. Others will stay on the periphery. Perhaps, we should imagine that the mission field is our parish, and the parish is our mission field.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Quote of the Day

From The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day...

"Do you have ecstasies and visions?"

"Visions of unpaid bills."

Grace, Brain Chemistry, and Bono

Grace is hard.

I was reminded about the difficulty of grace while reading an article on about evolutionary psychology.

Human beings are willing to suffer loss if it means punishing someone who has acted unfairly. As the article states...
"Our sense of fairness and our willingness to inflict damage on one another combine to encourage contributions to the common good and deter people from cheating. Researchers call this altruistic punishment."
Moreover, there is a physiological response. The striatum, a region of our brains which respond to "rewarding behavior", "lights up" when we engage in altruistic punishment. Apparently our sense of justice is deep. That is a good thing. As the Scriptures teach in Leviticus 19:15, "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

The only problem is that our sense of justice is limited. Someone who casually watches the evening news and condemns a man for a perceived injustice may reach a different conclusion while on a jury in a courtroom. Our understanding of justice is also perverted by sin. We often take pleasure in the fall of the mighty. Schadenfreude apparently stimulates the same part of the brain as altruistic punishment. Moreover, we often have a poor estimation of our own sinfulness. We see ourselves much better than we really are, or more rarely, much worse.

We believe firmly that everyone should be rewarded for good, punished for bad. The lead singer of U2, Bono, has a helpful way of describing this desire for fairness. In the book, Bono in Conversation by Michka Assayas, he describes the cycle of reward and punishment as "Karma."
"At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics-in physical laws-every action is met by an equal or an opposite one,"
"Karma", as Bono describes it, is rooted not only in religion and according to the New Scientist article, also nature. Grace works outside of "Karma." Grace suggests that we get better than we deserve.

Bono explains,
"And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that. . . . Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff."
Grace is good news, but we resist the good news because it goes against what we believe to be true. Grace is unearned. We rarely extend it to others, and we cheapen our own response to it.