Monday, May 31, 2010

To God be the Glory

Sunday was a great experience of worship as Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville ordained Tambi Brown Swiney, their associate pastor, to the gospel ministry. Tambi has worked out her call to ministry over a number of years. After she was married and became a mother, Tambi perceived a call to ministry. With the support of her family, she enrolled in the master of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham and began a commuter student existence. At the same time, she continued to serve through her church in Nashville.

At the ordination service, a mutual friend made the comment that he remembered serving alongside Tambi as a preschool worker during VBS when he was a teenager. He observed that Tambi had “worked up through the ranks” and certainly deserved this affirmation of her ministry.

Although we don’t think of ministerial roles as a hierarchy, there is something to be said for “paying your dues” in church life. Before one can aspire to leadership roles that involve the “care of souls” in a pastoral role, he or she should be willing to serve in roles where gifts can be identified and skills honed. This may be working in the nursery, welcoming guests, setting up tables and chairs, stuffing envelopes, or any number of other seemingly menial but important tasks in the life of the church.

Leadership roles in the church come with a great deal of responsibility, and one only realizes that by “working up through the ranks.” I am reminded of James 3:1—“Not many of you should presume to be teachers . . . because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Tambi’s ordination on Sunday was an affirmation that she has displayed gifts for ministry and leadership in all areas of church life, but the litany of commitment reminds her and all of us that whatever we do, we do “with the help of God.” To God be the glory! God bless you, Tambi.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost in Time and Space

Watching the last few minutes of repeat of the Lost finale Saturday evening, I picked up on a line that changed my perception of the “flash sideways” world and the island. When Jack is talking with his father, Christian says, “There is no now.” He goes on to explain that in the “flash sideways” world, there is no time factor. Those represented there may already have died or will die, but they are there nonetheless.

If we buy this point of view, then the island was “real” (despite all its mysticism and magic) and was the stage upon which Jack and the other castaways played out their journeys of redemption. This also means that Kate, Claire, and Sawyer escaped the island to live on in the “real world” even though they were present in the “flash sideways” world.

Here again, I do not believe that the writers of Lost are orthodox Christians, but this world that they crated to exist alongside ours is very much what Christians expect in heaven—reunion with loved ones without the scars of life or the ravages of age. We are bound to others by relationships and those relationships survive this life.

A lesson for believers is that we are inexorably bound to those we encounter in this world. We have a bond to those we have loved and those who have loved us. We are connected to those we helped in this world as well as those we failed to help or rejected. We are also bound to God’s people through Jesus Christ, our common link.

Perhaps the final gathering in the last episode of Lost was a glorified cast party for those the writers really liked, but it did give a taste of what I hope Heaven will be like.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Faithful Debriefing

In the current issue of The Christian Century, Mark Wm. Radecke addresses the ten worst practices of short-term mission trips. As a university chaplain, Radecke speaks from long personal experience in taking students on mission trips in the United States and overseas.

A key point in his article is the necessity of helping students to “figure out” what is going with them as a result of being part of these experiences. He writes,

When I began leading mission trips, I assumed that participants would naturally come to new understandings and integrate them into their faith and life. What I failed to appreciate was the importance of reflection—so critical that some practitioners refer to it as the "hyphen in service-learning." When reflection is minimal or missing—when those involved in short-term missions do not ruminate on their experiences, ponder the situations of those served and relate them to their own faith—a precious opportunity is lost.

As a former campus minister, I learned this lesson myself “in the trenches.” I have lost count of how many short-term mission trips I have planned and conducted with college students. I could develop my own list of positive and negative learning, but I think that Radecke has identified a key idea. How do we help students process what is happening so that it makes a difference in their lives?

Several years ago, I took a group of students to work in a youth detention facility in Baltimore. Actually, it was more of a holding facility for juveniles who were being processed and evaluated before being sentenced or placed in long-term incarceration. My team was made up of smart, upper middle-class college students who had never stepped into any type of penal facility. I can remember spending several nights talking until midnight with weeping college students—both men and women—who were devastated by the life experiences of these young offenders.

Several of those students went on to work with young people as educators or ministers. Others became more compassionate lay men and women in churches. All had a better understanding of the evil that haunts many young lives.

Did this ministry help change the lives of the youthful offenders with whom the students spent time? Probably not. Do I feel guilty about that? Sometimes. But I do know that the college students were never the same because they made the experience a turning point in their lives.

The Missional Church: Simple

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lost and Community

In previous comments about the finale of Lost, I may have missed a primary theme that has run throughout the series—the place of community in redemption. The “live together, die alone” phrase surfaced early on in the first season and was repeatedly emphasized during the last season. Perhaps the idea is not that the “survivors” find redemption within themselves but that they find it in community.

This may be the way that postmoderns come to faith.  The old approach to conversion was "believe-belong-behave" whereas the new model may be "belong-behave-believe."  This seems to express the experience of the "survivors."

In order to make any significant change in our lives, we need a community of people to support us. People in this type of community challenge one another, support each other in the difficult times, and share their spiritual struggles. Just as in Lost, this group is often flawed and divided but they stick together for the journey. We need to be part of a community of people. We need accountability. Christians find this within the church.

A key idea of Lost may be that people find redemption in community. In the case of Lost, it is not Christian community, but it is community. Those behind the program may well realize that most of us find this by participation in a religious community. This may be the significance of the stained glass window behind Jack and his father at the “church.” The window seems to depict the symbols of the world’s major religions, thus pointing out where most individuals seek community.

In the New Testament, the writer of John’s first epistle says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20, NIV) For Christians, the community that we call the church is the laboratory of relationships where we learn to love the unlovely and perhaps come to the realization that we may be part of the “unlovely.”


Monday, May 24, 2010

"The End" of Lost

Lost ended as it began with Jack Shephard lying in the jungle, but he is dying. In fact, it appears that everyone is dead! The two and one-half hours of the final episode were riveting story telling that tugged at our hearts but, as expected, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof left us with a lot of questions and plot holes big enough to drive several semi trucks through. For example, why were Desmond and Penny in the final group in the church? Was Desmond even real? Penny was never on the island. If she is dead, how did she die? Kate, Sawyer, and Claire can’t have escaped the island on the plane if they are getting ready to go on to “the light.” Is finding your “significant other” the key to salvation? Among those in the church, Locke seemed to be the only one who had not found his true love. What about Michael and Walt? Where do they fit into all this? What about Ben Linus? Why is he waiting outside the church? Is he still atoning for his sins?  What about Charlotte and Daniel?

The only way that I can process all of this is to assume that the whole six years took place in a dream or on another plane of existence. With that perspective, the mythology, struggles, deaths, relationships, deceptions, and victories were all part of the main characters’ finding redemption or, as the scripture says, “working out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” This suggests that the Island is, indeed, a sort of purgatory where people have a second chance to redeem themselves rather than Hell as Richard Alpert suggested at one point. Where this leaves characters like Ben, Juliet, and Penny who were not part of the original Oceanic flight is a gap in my theory.

For people of faith, Cuse and Lindelof give a nod to religion in the stained glass window at the “church” that provides the backdrop for the scene where Jack encounters his deceased father (“Christian Shephard”). The window seems to have the symbols of most of the major world religions. I suppose that the show runners are pointing out that the situation that the plane crash “survivors” find themselves in is common to people of every time and nation—how can we deal with sin and loss?

Although Lost points out quite clearly that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness, their answer is a salvation without Christ. They do, indeed, redeem themselves. Redemption seems to depend on making right choices (even in a fantasy world) or finding the right mate!

The plotting may be flawed but the characters were powerful. Lost was six seasons of memorable television. I doubt we will see anything like it again.




Friday, May 21, 2010

Lost and Redemption

We are closing in on the finale of Lost. I am afraid that showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof will leave us with a number of unanswered questions, but one thing is clear. This is a story of redemption and the title Lost was well chosen.

In last week’s episode, island protector Jacob (or his apparition) gathered the four final “candidates” around the campfire and laid it on the line. When Sawyer says, “I was doing just fine without you and the island,” Jacob responds with the truth. None of them were doing well in the lives they lived off the island. He says, “I chose all of you because you were flawed, you were all like me, alone and looking for something you couldn't find, and you need this place as much as it needs you."

In a recent interview, Damon Lindelof said:

If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it’s redemption. It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community. So the redemption theme started to kind of connect into “live together, die alone,” which is that these people were all lone wolves who were complete strangers on an aircraft, even the ones who were flying together like Sun and Jin. Then let’s bring them together and through their experiences together allow themselves to be redeemed. When the show is firing on all pistons, that’s the kind of storytelling that we’re doing.

These are cosmic issues but also very personal issues. These are the issues that we deal with as believers. I would certainly disagree with Lindelof's answers but agree with his observations about the human situation.

Although we may came at it in a number of ways, Christians believe that the way to redemption is in Jesus Christ.  As His followers, we enter into a community that we often call "the body of Christ."  Like the characters in Lost, we are flawed and in need of redemption, but we know that those who seek that  can find it.

Like followers of Lost, Christians are often left with unanswered questions, but through Christ we find the redemption for which everyone longs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sometimes Going to Church Is Not the Answer.

Several years ago, a traditional church in a southern city followed the lead of some missional members to reach out to children who lived in a lower-income area near the church building. The couple lived in the area and was already involved with the children through their relationships in the neighborhood and by opening their home for fellowship, tutoring, and Bible studies. Some other members of the church volunteered to help with these activities. The point finally came when someone suggested that the children be invited to attend worship at the contemporary service of the church.

This was a worthy idea, but it soon became apparent that it was doomed to failure. The children were not “used to being in church” even when the worship was upbeat and celebrative. Some church members suggested that they be involved in classes to help understand “how they should act.” As you might expect, the children became less and less interested in attending, and the effort to integrate them into the life of the church failed.

I thought of this recently when I was listening to a friend whose ministry involves doing evangelism in Southeast Asia as he shared the lessons that he had learned. Early in his ministry, he focused on spending time with youth and young adults in certain recreational and sports activities, developing relationships, and sharing the Gospel as the opportunity came. When one of these young men accepted Christ, my friend would attempt to link him to a local church. The “hand off” rarely worked. He came to understand that the church was ready to accept the new converts only if they changed to meet the church’s standards. This often meant not only changing life style but giving up contact with former friends and even family members.

The changes expected of the new convert that became a stumbling block were not doctrinal concerns. Most of these young men just knew Jesus and little else. The problem was matters of dress, language, and association.

The learning experience for my friend was that transformation doesn’t come from going to church but in knowing Jesus. He does not question the commitment or mission of the churches in his area, but he admits that they were a bad fit for new believers. He is now working to develop indigenous faith communities for new converts.

Both situations remind us that those of us in traditional churches may unwittingly provide barriers that keep the unchurched and newly converted out of our fellowships. We don’t do it intentionally, but we expect too much and too soon. We also may take a passionate new believer out of the environment where he or she can have the most impact on unbelievers at a key time.

Sometimes going to church is not the answer.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

From the Earth to the Moon--Again?

The HBO series 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of the Apollo program, the program that landed six spacecraft on the moon. The series does not fail to point out the sacrifices—human lives, marriages, careers—that contributed to that success.

As a result of the Apollo mission, twelve men walked on the surface of the moon, returning valuable knowledge about its structure and possible origins. At the same time, these astronauts only touched a small part of a globe with the land mass of Africa. Only toward the end was a geologist included on a crew. What if more scientists could spend time there? What about artists and other creative people?

The series is particularly poignant since 12 years after this series was produced and 38 years after the last human walked on the moon, our President indicates that the moon is “old hat” and it is time to move on to new challenges. We still know very little about our nearest planetary neighbor. When the United States was a young nation, there were many theories and myths about what lay west of the Mississippi River, but Thomas Jefferson sought clarity by sending Lewis and Clark to separate fact from fiction by an extended expedition. They opened the door to a new understanding of our North American continent. If we really wan to know the Moon, we need to place people there for extended periods of time.

The American space program accomplished near miraculous feats between 1968 and 1972 with technology that we smile at today. There were no cell phones, no personal computers, or many of the synthetic materials we now possess. We have made massive steps forward in technology. What could we do with what we have today? As other nations move into space, perhaps we will find willing partners for the task of returning to the Moon.

In his speech presenting the challenge fulfilled by the Apollo program, John F. Kennedy said, “We chose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” We need such projects to stretch ourselves, expand our minds, and provide new patterns of cooperation. Would it be easy? No, but anyone can do the easy things.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Scarcity or Abundance?

Is your image of God one of scarcity or abundance? Does God conserve or create?

In an online discussion, Steve Simmons, Director of Continuing Education, Moravian Theological Seminary, and an ordained Presbyterian minister, points out that we are observing a clash of two different worldviews. The old one looks like this:

          Scarcity=management-power-control

The new one looks like this:

         Abundance=collaboration-connectivity-creativity

What we often see as generational conflict within churches or denominations may actually be different ways of perceiving reality. One mindset is concerned with the preservation of the material assets and the status quo, so a high priority is placed on control and resource allocation. If you want to make changes, you must first get permission. The other mindset is more focused on the generation of information and ideas. This approach is highly relational and is predicated on the belief that ideas are a renewable resource, that relationships are constantly being renegotiated and developed, and that stories take on a fresh face in every generation.

How does this play out in church or denomination? Those who embrace a philosophy of scarcity practice control. Their idea of “renewal” is to take the same resources and reorganize them in a different configuration. Those who embrace the abundance model practice exploration. They break down the old boxes and seek out new partners with fresh ideas.

We come back to the theological basis for our ministry. Has God called us to conserve or create? Undoubtedly, there are beliefs and practices that we do want to preserve because they have stood the test of time. At the same time, there are some things we hold dear that may require reconfiguration or renovation to be relevant to our time. Every thing that we do in the church was an innovation at one time, but the things that worked a century or two ago may require reassessment today. This is done with the understanding that the Spirit of God walks with us as we enter the process and will provide the people, relationships, and insights necessary to deal with changing circumstances.

What does the Spirit of God want to provide for us today?



Sunday, May 09, 2010

A Place of Discovery

Although a person works in another culture, the approaches he or she uses to share the Gospel can provide insights for doing the same in our own culture. Those insights may even have a personal application. In a recent discussion with friends who live in Southeast Asia, they used a phrase that caught my attention—“community as a place of discovery.”

They talked about their attempts to provide a place where indigenous believers can ask questions without fear of criticism or ridicule. Although the questions may come from their study of the Bible, very often they deal with concerns about living out their faith within their culture. How can they be believers but still be responsible and participating members of their larger community? What do they have to give up in order to follow Christ? What are the “hard sayings” of the gospel that are a stumbling block for them?

This challenged me with the questions, “Where is my place of discovery? Where can I be honest about my own struggles to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ?” Unfortunately, we do not necessarily find that “place of discovery” within most churches. The concern there is more often for uniformity and acquiescence rather than the discovery that comes from honest questions.

I was simultaneously pleased and concerned several years ago by the comment made by a member of a Sunday school class that I was leading. A regular member said, “There is really very little relationship between what we talk about here on Sunday and what I do on Monday morning.” I was concerned about our failure to deal with issues that really mattered to that class member, but I was pleased that he felt that he could make that kind of honest statement in our class without being censured.

So where is your “place of discovery”? Have you been able to find a community—even a small one—where you can honestly deal with your doubts and concerns? I am pleased to be part of a couple of groups that embrace this level of transparency, and I am thankful for them. I hope you can fine one, too.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

We Have What We Deserve

After a recent capital campaign in our church, I reminded our pastor of the comment that makes the circuit on a regular basis. It is the comment of the leader who stands before the congregation and says, “We have all the money we need. The problem is that it is still in your pockets.”

I was reminded of this statement when I read an article by Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, on a recent meeting of Baptists at Callaway Gardens. Parham’s comments were very candid, and I accept his quotes, although unattributed, as providing an accurate portrayal of that meeting. He quoted one participant as saying, "We don't have enough money, enough constituents, enough readers, enough students, enough volunteers. As we've said today several times already, enough money, enough money, enough money.”

Friend, it may be that we have what we deserve. People give to those things they believe in and value. They believe in and value things only when they hear the story and become engaged. If they chose not to support what we are about, maybe we are about the wrong things.

The same speaker is reported to have said, “Not surprisingly many groups within our movement face difficulties, if not for mere survival then to fulfill the founding vision or to live up to supporters' expectations or to pull the median age of the constituency below 73." My question in response is, “Are any of these Kingdom goals?” Survival, fulfilling unfounded expectations, assumed supporter preferences, and lowering the median age of constituents don’t energize me (and I am closer to 73 than I wish to admit).

This problem is not peculiar to moderate or “goodwill” Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention will meet in Orlando this summer to receive the report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. One Baptist friend who is still involved in SBC denominational affairs told me that “this will change the face of the convention more than anything in the last twenty years” and he did not think that was a good thing. The greatest fear of convention leaders should be those who ask, “Who cares?

The old paradigms are dead, but we fail to acknowledge their demise. After death, we celebrate the life of the one who has gone before, we deal with our grief, and we begin to rebuild our lives in a new configuration. Baptist Christians must enter into the same painful process. The sooner, the better.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Twelve and the Seven

One of the challenges faced by pastors today is the expectation of some church members that the pastor be the CEO—Chief Executive Officer—of the church. Well, in reality, some church members just want the pastor to be the manager of the church so they won’t have to deal with things like roof repairs, leaky plumbing, janitorial service and failing audio-visual systems. A pastor friend recently commented to me, “Seminary just did not prepare me to be the business manager of a church.”

Certainly, there are some administrative details that every minister must assume whether he or she is comfortable with them or not. I also agree that many of the systems of the church—financial, personnel, facility management—should be conducted by the best business practices available. But where did we get the idea that the minister is the one responsible for these things?

Please note this passage from the Acts of the Apostles:

During this time, as the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—"Hellenists"—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines. So the Twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, "It wouldn't be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we'll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we'll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God's Word." (Acts 6:1-4, The Message)

The action of “the Twelve” (the apostles) did not mean that they did not care about the poor. They did want them to receive proper care, and they certainly were concerned about the internal conflict produced by alleged discrimination in the care of widows. They simply decided that there were those who were more gifted to deal with such matters. There is certainly a spiritual dimension both to the selection of “the seven” and their work. They were spiritually mature, trustworthy, and had common sense. At least two of these men, Stephen and Philip, had significant ministries of their own—Stephen as a preacher (although his ministry did not last long) and Philip as an evangelist. They were assigned a practical (read “business”) responsibility, but they were gifted in other ways as well.

The minister of a church cannot abdicate his or her responsibility to deal with the practical matters of the church, but there are gifted laypeople—men and women—who can come alongside and share this responsibility. I have been blessed to serve alongside such people on church committees. They may not feel “called to ministry,” but their work helps things to go more smoothly in the daily operations and work of the church. They are diakonoi or “servants” of the church in the fullest sense. They need to step up to the task and be thanked for accepting it.