Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Partnership Whose Time has Come

The process for supplying ministerial leaders used to go something like this.  Churches nurtured young people who “responded to the call to ministry.”  After the candidates completed college, the church sent them on to the denominational seminary which not only taught denominational doctrine but were funded by the denomination to do so.  When the student graduated, he (and sometimes she) began candidating through the denomination’s accepted process and found an initial place of service.  

This may be a simplified explanation that did not always work as smoothly as stated, but this was the general idea.  The current situation is much more complicated.  Potential seminarians respond to the call later in life—either after an educational hiatus following college or after starting a career and family.  

 Some don’t have any college education at all.  Denominations are no longer funding theological education as they once did, so students carry more of the educational debt load. A final challenge is that churches may call out potential ministers, encourage them to receive preparation, and then cannot afford to employ them.

The changes in the religious ecosystem call for new types of partnerships among individuals preparing for ministry, churches, and theological institutions.  For the most part, churches still want trained clergy leaders.  Most traditional denominations require a certain amount of education before they will ordain a minister.  Even megachurches see the value in ministerial education.  A recent study conducted by Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religious Research showed  that three-quarters of mega churches have an internship or mentoring program for ministerial preparation.  Twenty-five percent of those are conducted in cooperation with a recognized seminary.

With the advent of distance learning and flexible degree programs, any church can partner with a theological institution to provide training for a prospective minister. With many churches choosing to call ministers out of their own fellowship, the importance of adding another partner to the mix is vital. 
This collaboration provides resources and perspectives that the church alone cannot supply.

The next step, and perhaps the hardest, is convincing a church to step up and be a responsible financial partner in this relationship.  In the best of all possible worlds, the church would not only help provide a place for a prospective or current minister to serve, but would compensate the person and assist with the cost of his/her education.  A commitment on the part of the minister  either to serve   the church for a specific period of time in return for this assistance or to provide partial repayment if she or he left would safeguard the church’s investment.

Other benefits could result from the relationship as well.  For example, seminary professors could provide Christian formation opportunities for church staff and laity.  Church staff could take advantage of the library and continuing education offerings of the seminary.  The church could offer a laboratory for other seminary students to observe congregational life in action. 

The times call for new ways of thinking and relating but implementation requires openness on the part of all the potential players.

Aligning Goals and Values

“If you have tried to do something and failed, you are vastly better off than if you had tried to do nothing and succeeded.”—Richard Martin Stern

As any reader of this blog knows, I believe in setting goals.  Even if not fully achieved, goals provide us with a direction for our daily, weekly, monthly and annual activities.  They are benchmarks that measure change.  Achieving a goal provides a sense of accomplishment.  Setting goals also helps us to determine our priorities.  The question for today is, “Do your goals reflect what you most value in life?”

Coaching clients have told me that one of the most effective exercises I ask them to do is reflect on and identify their core values.  When things become difficulty in a coaching conversation, going back to one’s stated values provides both motivation and clarity.

For example, if a client has said that family is a core value but he keeps adding on responsibilities that take him away from family, how consistent is this in relation to his values?  For another example, a person may say that she values a personal relationship with God but she fails to set time aside for those things that will help her grow as a believer, is she really committed to this aspect of her life?

As we think about our direction for the New Year, our values can serve as a compass pointed toward true north.  We may deviate from the course from time to time, but our values will always call us back to the path we need to follow.

I encourage you not only to set good goals for the coming year but to make sure that they are consistent with your deepest values.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Thank You for Taking Your Children to Church

For Christian parents, taking your children to church requires a special commitment.  Although there are more options for church attendance than just Sunday morning and dress expectations have been minimized, the very act of taking (not sending) your children to worship and (hopefully) Bible study is a witness to your own faith and a desire to instill that faith in them.  You are witnessing to the fact that there is something more to life.

I thought about this when I recently heard a rebroadcast of an On Point presentation  on NPR hosted by Tom Ashbrook.  He was interviewing Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College on his book Living the Secular Life:  New Answers to Old Questions.  

Based on research of sociological trends, Zuckerman explained that people still want community but they want it without supernatural and mythological trappings.  His personal analysis is that religion does more harm than good, and secular humanity is seeking meaningful substitutes.

How does he handle the pull to transcendence that we see expressed by so many people today, especially young adults?  He labels this as “the nonreligious impulse you can’t explain.”  In a Washington Post review of the book, the reviewer comments:

 “Zuckerman describes the intangible glue he believes connects nonbelievers to the universe and to each other. It is something he calls ‘aweism.’ He calls it a ‘profound, overflowing feeling’ that he knows only in fleeting moments: playing on the beach with his young daughter, eating grapes from his grandparents’ backyard, sledding in the dark of a January night, dancing with abandon at a favorite concert.”

In the broadcast, Zuckerman said that his substitute for Sunday worship was going to soccer games where he could connect with all different types of people and experience community.  He could experience community without religious puffery.

Ashbrook also included Bill Leonard, professor of church history and religion at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, for a part of the conversation.  Leonard seemed to surprise Zuckerman by not attacking him but engaging in thoughtful discussion of the topic.  A Congregational minister from New England called in and Zuckerman found his comments encouraging but only because the caller had “evidently embraced secularism.”  Maybe Zuckerman needs to broaden his understanding of the Christian faith and those who practice it.

Host Ashbrook pushed Zuckerman to accept the idea that secularism and secular humanism are only possible because of the foundation established by religious thinkers through the centuries.  Of course, Zuckerman’s response was that all of the moral and ethical teachings of the world religions were only the product of humanity’s creativity and reason rather than a response to a transcendent experience.

So back to my original statement:  “Taking your children to church on Sunday (or Friday or Saturday) is a statement of faith.”  In doing so, you are saying to them, there is more to life than survival, personal achievement, and living comfortably with your neighbor.  By experiencing worship of God and experiencing Christian community, you attest to the possibility of becoming more through a relationship with the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  You are expressing a commitment to be part of the People of God.  Keep up the good work!  

Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens—A Review

Have you ever sat down with an old friend who you have not seen in years and immediately reconnected?  That describes my experience with Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  

I had three expectations going in:
  • Someone will die.
  • Given the involvement of J. J. Abrams, there will be strong female characters.
  • A lot of things will blow up
All  expectations were fulfilled.

First, someone significant dies.  If you look back over all of the Star Wars films, both the first trilogy (episodes four, five, and six) and the prequels (episodes one, two and three), a significant character (not necessarily a major character) dies in each for dramatic effect.   I saw the movie with three of my grandchildren.  Before we went into the movie, both my sixteen year old grandson (who has seen all of the movies) and I guessed who it would be.  We were right.  And it was very dramatic and the treacherous act will be a major factor in future films.

Second, the new Luke Skywalker is Rey, an orphan growing up on a desert planet with remarkable skills as a pilot and mechanic.  Yes, we have seen this before.  As played by Daisy Ridley, Rey is the new protagonist in the series.  She is remarkable and shows the promise of being able to stay the course for two more films.

Third, every film tries to deliver bigger special effects through the use of CGI and, let’s be honest, sometimes it is really hokey.  Abrams has wisely mixed both real-time effects and CGI to provide the feel of a real, gritty world.  In the prequels, it was too evident that this was all being done before a green screen and although the effects were amazing, we knew they were faked.  In this film, we believe this is real.

What Abrams has done is to return to the themes of the original trilogy and transfer the storyline to new, younger players.  He has rebooted the franchise after the prequels—episodes one, two, and three—missed the mark in satisfying the fan base.  Simply stated—they were a mess.  The performances were wooden and uninspiring, the CGI was over the top, and they mythology was muddled.  There was even an attempt to explain the Force, throwing in an Immaculate Conception for Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader).  The task of the prequels was not easy—to tell the rise and fall of Anakin.  It was a tragedy but one that was more painful than necessary.

At least in this film, no one tries to explain the Force—the power of the Jedi masters. The Force just is there, so we are free to interpret it as we wish.

The new characters are both interesting and engaging.  They really represent three aspects of young Luke Skywalker.  Rey is the talented outcast who is seeking her way in the universe.  Finn (John Boyega), a storm trooper who has had enough, is willing to take risks and worry about the consequences later.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) is the hotshot pilot with a yen to be Han Solo.

On the Dark Side, however, things are not promising.  If Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the best that the First Order can find to quarterback their team, they may need to go back to the draft for more talent.  He is more petulant than terrifying.  Darth Vader would be embarrassed.

So the bottom line is, go and enjoy the movie.  The Force Awakens will not make the world a better place, but you will enjoy the beginning of another hero’s journey and come out feeling better. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Review: The Man in the High Castle

Christians in the United States sometimes talk in rather exaggerated terms of being “persecuted.”  What would life be like for us if we actually lived in a totalitarian state without basic civil rights?  The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history series on Amazon, gives us some ideas.

The series is loosely based Philip K. Dick's classic award-winning novel.  In adapting the story for television, creator Frank Spotniz has taken great liberties with the original source.  Spotniz, who was associated with The X Files, freely exercises some of the political and social satire of the former series in showing a United States of America in 1960 where the Allies lost World War Two.  

In this version of history, the United States has been divided into three parts: the Japanese Pacific States in the west, the Greater Nazi Reich in the east and the Rocky Mountain States (or the Neutral Zone) in the middle.  Hitler is still alive, but he appears to be in failing health and ripe for assassination. In showing us a history that never existed, Spotniz mixes the familiar and the unexpected with styles, entertainment, and social mores displayed in disconcerting ways.

The plot is driven by a set of films that depict an alternate reality (or realities).  These appear to be historical newsreels but they depict things that did not happen in the timeline where our characters live.  For example, one shows the Allies winning the war and crushing the Axis powers. Another shows San Francisco being leveled by an atomic bomb and American prisoners, including one of the key characters, being killed by another key character.  Are these films faked or do they show another possible history or histories?  The emphasis is less on how this is possible than on what does it means for those in subjugation.  The films seem to represent the hope for a better life than the one our characters live.

Both the representatives of the Reich and an American resistance movement want the films and will go to great lengths to get them.  The Nazis see them as subversive.  The goal of the resistance seems to be to get them to the mysterious “man in the high castle,” but why he wants them is unclear.

This is a rather slow paced and intricate presentation but there is depth to the understated performances.  This gives special resonance when there is a truly emotional and terrifying scene.  The characters are so deep that we cannot assume too much about any of them, thus surprising us at times.  We are never sure of their motivations.

The science fiction element is minimal, surfacing primarily in the final episode of season one.  There is more of an emphasis on the spiritual and metaphysical implications of the situations on the lives of the principal players.  What is reality and how does faith help us to process it?

The key question of the series seems to be, “What are you willing to give your life for?”  Some of the players seem willing to give their lives to obtain and protect these films. Others are willing to sacrifice for family and loved ones.  Even the Axis conquerors struggle with the question in their own way.

We Christians talk a great deal about what is important to us, but we rarely find ourselves in a situation where we have to take a stand and, even when we do so, little is at risk. What is important enough for you to die for?  The Man in the High Castle challenges us to answer that question.