Monday, November 29, 2010


I wanted to share this blog post by Kara Root, a Presbyterian pastor in Minneapolis about how a certain Presbytery I happen to work for had a debate on one word. It's worth a read about ministry in our current context where fear seems to abound.

Sunday Sermon: November 28, 2010

“Unsafe at Any Speed”
Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5
November 28, 2010
Advent 1
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

In the Spring of 1990, I was a junior at Michigan State University.  For Spring Break that year, I went on a trip to retreat center outside of Norman, Oklahoma.  We drove caravan-style from East Lansing, Michigan all the way to Norman.  Now, one of the people responsible for driving was a fellow student, a sophomore named Ray.  Ray’s Dad worked at Ford and was able to get company cars to drive around.  Somehow, Ray was able to get his dad to let him use a company car on this trip.  Said company car happened to be a Ford Taurus. 
So, I ended up in Ray’s car as we drove from Michigan.  We stopped at some point for lunch in Missiouri.  I remember being in the parking lot of a fast-food joint and a group decided they wanted to go to Arby’s across the street.  Ray thought this was a good time for me to drive the car.

Now, this was a bad decision for three reasons.  First, the car was a stick shift, and I had never driven a car with a manual transmission.  Second to get to the Arby’s you had to go uphill…in a stickshift.  The third reason is that this Taurus wasn’t any ordinary car, but what is called among car geeks, the Taurus SHO.  SHO stands for super high output and it is a souped up version of this plain family sedan.  The original SHO, which this car was, had an engine made by Yahmaha, the motocycle company.  Maybe if I had know I was driving a demon maskquerading as family sedan, I would have declined driving Ray’s car, but ignorance is bliss, so I went ahead and tried to drive the car.

I repeat, I tried to drive the car.  Trying to remember to deal with the clutch was bad enough.  The car would rev up (another bad sign) and then I would stall it.  Start it again, the engine would rev, car would stall. 
After many fits and starts, I got it up the hill and now was attempting the most challenging maneuver: trying to make a left turn, up a hill, and into the parking lot.  I can still remember Ray saying something like “hit the gas” and I did just that.

Seconds later I had made the left turn into the parking lot and I’m pretty sure that everyone knew it.  Why?  Because when I hit the gas, I literally peeled rubber. The care sprung to life, and for a split second I felt like I was part of NASCAR.  The tires squealed, and I roared into the parking lot of Arby’s complete with the smell of burning rubber.

It was safe to say that I never did drive that car again. 

If there was any lesson to be learned, other than never try to learn to drive stick in a race car, it was learning to appreciate the power I was dealing with.  After my experience, I learned to apprciate the sheer power underneath the hood of this car and most importantly, that this was no ordinary car.  It was not safe.

The passage today found in book of Matthew is an odd one for this time of year.  This the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we prepare the coming of the Christ child, and it is during this time that we tend to get sentimental.  We like to sing Christmas hymns (even though it isn’t Christmas yet) about a little child born in Bethlehem.  We have images of a manger with the baby Jesus and animals milling about.  It all looks so peaceful and oh so very…safe.

And yet, here is this passage from the Bible where a grownup Jesus is talking about  the coming of the Son of Man and not knowing the hour and about being ready.  And if we read further on, there would be stories of ten bridesmaids that were locked out of wedding party and a tale about sheep and goats, reward and punishment.  None of this looks peaceful or bucolic. 

Growing up, many people thought this was about the second coming of Jesus and the lesson here is that we need to get saved and get right with God so that we won’t be “left behind.” 

But what if Jesus wasn’t just talking about future time, but was talking about the present time?  What if Jesus wasn’t talking about just about the judgement that is to come, but the judgement of Jesus now?

When Jesus spoke to his followers, he might just have been talking about his own time.  There were many who wanted things to be as they were and missed seeing the Messiah, God’s anointed right in front of them.  Many of the religious leaders of that time missed out on Jesus, because they refused to see him.  They were not ready to for the coming of the Son of Man.

If you read the gospels, you always find that the people one would expect to be ready for Christ’s coming would be most unprepared.  The religious leaders like the Pharisees tended to think that they knew all about God and about the coming of the Messiah and Jesus wasn’t it.  A man that ate with sinners and broke the religious laws, someone who was disruptive to their way of life, how could this man be the Messiah?

And yet, Jesus was the Messiah, the one who came to those who hearts were prepared for his coming, the outcasts, the forgotten, even the villians.  They were ready to hear the message of the Son of Man.

For us modern folk, the message here is to be ready for when Jesus returns.  We can hear in this text of that future day when Jesus will come and we must give an accounting of how we cared for our sisters and our brothers.  But the message is also that Jesus comes today and everyday.  God comes in our daily lives and we must have the eyes to see when Jesus breaksthrough.

All of this talk about the coming of God and God’s judgement is not what we expect in Advent.  We want that sweet baby Jesus.  But Advent reminds us that Jesus is not safe.   Jesus keeps on barging into our lives and messing up our plans.  Jesus points out that we don’t have it all together and that we need to get right with him.  Jesus  power to heal, to love the unlovable reminds us that we are dealing with something more power than anything we ever imagined.

What if we lived waiting for the coming of Chirst, not knowing the time when Jesus might arrive?  What would this church look like if we spent time doing works of justice towards those in need in preparation of Christ’s return?  What if we thought that in the face of the poor or the outcast we might encounter the Living Christ.

Advent is a time for preparing and waiting for the Christ, but it is also a time we are reminded that God is not safe.  We can get ready for wild ride with Jesus, but we can’t domesticate or tame Jesus.

In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion , The Witch and The Wardrobe, there is a conversation about the nature of Aslan.  The children in the story find out that Aslan is not a man but a lion and knowing about the power of lions, the kids are scared.  One of the children, named Susan asks,”Is he quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver replies, "That you will, dearie, and no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly."

Then Susan’s sister Lucy asks, "Then he isn't safe?" That prompts Mr. Beaver to tells the young girl, "Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
The problem today with the church is that we want to worship a safe God, one that is controllable and predictable.  But God isn’t safe.  We should live out our faith with fear and trembling.  But know that God is good as well. 

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know the power of that Ford Taurus.  Don’t be the same way of God.  We worship a power God of love and judgement.  Be prepared to meet Jesus now. Today.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Listening to the Young (Adults)

It's interesting being in a congregation undergoing massive change.

Since First Christian sold its building in 2008, we've been deciding what to do next.  In September a vote was taken on deciding on four options: 1) a move to a new building; 2) a house church; 3) move into a shared space with two other churches; 4) close.  Options 2 and 4 got the lowest votes and now it's down 1 and 3.

Every so often, the taskforce charged with looking into these options get together and talk.  Sometimes we report about what is the talk within the congregation.  More often than not, the talk is always coming from one group: those in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.

For whatever reason, the views of this group is made known.  But what's interesting is that another group's views are seldom if ever mentioned: those under 40.  There isn't a large group of them at church, but they exist.  What's interesting is that no one has every really asked this group what they think about what's going on which is kind of odd: this is the group of folks that this church wants to attract and in some ways, their views seem to be ignored.

I know it's not intentional.  And no, I'm not saying the views of the older people don't matter.  But why aren't we taking the time to prod this group for insight to what the church is to be and do in this age, and moreso why aren't we asking them how they are doing?

Carol Howard Merritt's latest post is basically asking the same question.  This portion of her post is a keeper: often we want people to enter our churches and begin caring about all of the traditions and cultural norms that concern us, but we don’t always take the time to meet them at the level of the ashtray. We neglect to find out what concerns them, what is important to them, and how we can work together.

Maybe the best way to attract younger folks is not with cool music or good coffee (though the latter is important in my book), but maybe it's by actually being concerned with their lives; wondering how they are doing, how the congregation can best help them and, well, how to be church to them.

The young adults at our church are fascinating people and have ideas and thoughts that are of value to this community called First Christian.  And the young adults at congregations all across the nation are people with questions and ideas that we need to pay attention to.

Let's not ignore the old, but let's listen the young in our midst- even if they are few in number.  What they have to say might surprise us.

Sex and the Aspie

This blog post is really not work safe or for little ones or for those uncomfortable chatting up sexual issues in public.  That said, it is a good account about how someone with Aspergers deals with sex and all the miscues she deals with.

Let's just say it reminds me of my own odd journey.  That's all I'm gonna say.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Do You Go To Church?

Christian Century book review editor Richard Kaufmann wonders why people bother to go to church:

When I sit in church on Sunday mornings, I sometimes look around at the other congregants and ask myself, "Why are these people here? Why did they choose to come to church?" Some people prefer staying at home to leisurely read the Sunday paper, or go out for a relaxed Sunday brunch. Why have these people given up their precious spare time to be here?

Not only is church attendance going down, but those who do go to church do so less frequently. As Lovett Weems points out in a recent Century article, the definition of a regular attendee has changed from someone who is there almost every Sunday to one who attends perhaps only two Sundays out of a month. And yet 38 percent of Americans report being an active member of a church or other religious organization. Many keep coming back to church for some reason.
Kauffman then answers his own question:

I can't speak for others, but here is why I go to church. I go first of all to meet God, to be in God's presence. I go also to make connection with other people who share many of my foundational convictions and commitments. I go to find meaning in life, to make sense of my life and to search for guidance on how I should live out my life.

In other words, I go to church to be part of something bigger than myself, to join my storyline with one that started long before I made my appearance in this life and will continue beyond my earthly existence.

This has led me to wonder why I go to church.  Of course, I can answer, "I'm one of the pastors," but that doesn't really work.  The reason I go to church is because this is the place that I am reminded of God's Spirit which moves throughout all of creation.  As much as people say they can worship in a forest or bowling alley, it is at a church surrounded by that odd group of people who come and gather that I am reminded of God's wider action in the world.  It is through these fellow folks on a journey that I know that God is afoot in creation.

Every Sunday I head down to the Sunday School room where the little kids come to learn about the Bible.  It is through the kids that I am reminded of what it means to be a servant of God.  The elderly gentleman in his 90s reminds me that we are never done learning about God and finding ways to love God.  The musicians are able to connect me with the Holy One in ways that words sometimes fail to do.

That's why I go to church.  How about you?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Acting, Aspergers and Sundays

Gavin Bollard has a good blog post on how persons with Aspergers tend to be actors:

I think that aspies tend to be good at acting because they spend so much of their daily lives acting - and from a very early age.

For example, it's true that aspies often don't get jokes (although you rarely hear us complaining when neurotypicals don't get ours). Young aspies quickly learn that it's easier to "act like you got the joke" than it is to take the brunt and embarrassment of being the only one who didn't. We are quite often called upon to "act amused".

Then there are those sad and solemn occasions where sometimes we feel intense waves of emotion - and sometimes we don't. Again, honesty in these situations leads to ostracisation. Sometimes it's simply better to "act sad" or "act shocked".

For years, when there was a time of sadness, like a death, I would try to force emotions and even at times "act sad."

These days, the time that I tend to act the most tends to be on Sundays when I'm at church.  Being a pastor is probably not the best vocation for someone with Aspergers.  What I've learned over the years is that pastoring is an incredibly people-intensive duty that can wear even neurotypicals out.  But I believe God called me to this, so I learn to "fake it."  I've learned (the hard way) to be more outgoing, more willing to engage in small talk and listen to folk.  It's wearing and there are times I want to run and hide, but it's important, and I do get to learn more about the people at church.

Acting is something people with Aspergers have to do if they want to get anywhere in life, especially if we want to remain employed.

Gavin concludes by saying that there is a price to paid for all this acting:

Acting can be very tiring work. You can't expect the aspie to "act normal" all of the time. Aspies who are doing a lot of acting will often find that they need more sensory breaks and alone time than when they're not acting.

Indeed. Which is usually why after church, I have to take a nap just to "recharge."

I don't want to give people the impression that being an Aspie pastor is one big chore. A few Sundays ago, I was at church for six hours during the Trunk or Treat event. I left tired and "peopled out" but I was also jazzed about the ministry that was going on at church.

Acting can be draining, but it's also damn rewarding.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Dealing With Suicide

There's a church in the eastern metro of the Twin Cities that is hosting an event on suicide prevention.  This Presbyterian congregation has made mental illness and health a primary ministry, so it's not that shocking that they would do something on suicide and helping know the warning signs.

What's interesting is that there is no mention of the whole rash of suicide because of sexual orientation.  This is a just an event on teens an suicide.

I know this sounds bad, coming from a gay man, but I'm kind of glad this at least from the announcement, about helping people be more aware of teen suicides and how we can best prevent them from happening.

In light of the most recent suicide attributed to bullying of a gay teen, I've been wondering about how the wider community has been responding to all of this.  Most of the time it's been with anger and cries that "something must be done."  I don't want to ignore the problem of homophobia, but there I am concerned in all the hue and cry, what is being left out is the mental illness aspect of suicide.  We aren't talking about the depression that kids can face, and we aren't talking about how we need to have professionals teach kids how to help their friends who are facing emotional issues. My fear is that this has become yet another issue in the culture wars; ignoring the issues of depression that might be a part of this.

I think suicide is one of those things that are sometimes mysteries.  What one person can withstand, another just crumbles. 

The first (and so far only) funeral I've done as a pastor was for man only a year younger than me who committed suicide.  His death caused a lot of pain among his friends. I knew him, but not that well.  Nevertheless, his death also affected me. 

What I'm trying to get at is that instead of getting angry, we need to try to do a better job of paying attention to kids when they are in pain.  We need to find ways to hook them up with mental health professionals if they need that.

There are times for angry fists, but sometimes the response needs to be a hug.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Faith in Low Tide

This past Sunday, our church held a Trunk or Treat event at church. A number of members got together and decorated their cars and welcomed people to come by. We had a few people who actually did come with their kids. One gaggle of kids included a little girl in a cheerleader costume who went around giving everyone hugs. It was priceless.

Since we didn't have a ton of kids, one could see this as a failure. The thing is, very few of did see it that way. There was talking of doing this event next year, maybe on Saturday evening to attract more folks. People were generally excited to be doing something that opened the church up to the neighborhood and well, allowed them to have fun.

First Christian is a church trying to accept the fact that it's not a big church anymore. In fact, it's more of a small church these days. There are two ways to respond to that, and I see both at times. Sometimes in the same person.

One way to respond is with anxiety. Pastors feel anxious because they want to do something, anything, to make the church "successful" again. We might not want to admit it, but I think deep down, we pastor-types want to see the church grow numerically and tend to think it numbers. We get mad that the congregation isn't "doing anything" to allow themselves to grow. We get mad at ourselves for not being able to make the congregation grow. Lay folk also get anxious that the church isn't growing and get mad at each other and frustrated at the pastor for...well, you know what I'm getting at.

The other response is to just get out there just do stuff. You go on mission projects or decorate your car and fellowship with others on a nice, sunny day. You basically walk in faith and just keep being faithful, feeding the poor, learning more about God and having fun.

Episcopal author and pastor, Loren Mead wrote recently in a two part essay about the current state of the Mainline Church. In part two, he talks about trying to do ministry in an "outgoing tide," when churches are losing members, money and dealing large, aging physical plants. Mead suggests that pastors need to learn to do ministry in this context. The long and short of it, according to Mead, is that we all better to get used this, because it's going to be a while. He has some advice for pastors during this time, but I think it could apply to the laity as well:

Clergy have, now, the hard job of learning to lead in a world where the tide is going out. It is my hunch that the outgoing tide has many years to go. How do we lead the church during the time of an outgoing tide?

No one knows for sure. But as one who has enjoyed a time when the tide came in, and as one who has struggled to understand how to cope with the change of tides, and as one who has worked alongside the present generation of courageous pastors to hold steady during the outgoing tide, I have some thoughts about leadership in such times.
First. It’s not your fault. Something big is going on. It’s not you who made the tide come in and it’s not because of you that it’s going our.

Second. Work on your own faith. We KNOW how to keep spirits up when things go well. We DON’T know how to thrive when things blow up on us. Find the things that feed your spirit – what are they? Study? Periods of quiet? Hard exercise or strenuous games? Deep conversation with colleagues or friends? Special spiritual exercises or worship? Carpentry or Gardening? Going on retreat or to conferences? Music – listening to it or making it –whichever is right for you. Remember the Psalms? — they are obviously what Jesus turned to when things went badly for him. Try them. Whatever it is, be sure to make time for it. And do it. Find. If you haven’t already, what feeds your soul and do it. Don’t let ANYTHING get in the way of your own renewal.

Third. Pay attention to the institutional infrastructure – the things like the building, the training of leaders including yourself, the nurture of the organization, learning how to raise and manage funds. Those are the things that tend to get overlooked when things tighten up – but they are the very things you’ll need when the tide turns. The blessing for you is that this is something you can DO. DO, while you have to wait, wait, wait, for the tide to change. Get busy with some stuff you can do. It will make a difference for the next generation.

Fourth. Stand steady, no matter what happens. Everybody is scared of the changes going on. Nobody knows what to do or how it’s coming out. (Remember Jackson at Manassas? “There stands Jackson like a stone wall” it was said of him. He didn’t know for sure any more than anybody else, and I’m sure he was as tempted to anxiety and fear as everybody else – but he stood, and the men around him found they could stand, too. So, pastors, you must stand. If you can stand, others will be able to also.

Fifth. Remember our story. It’s not your denomination or your congregation. It’s a story that begins with Abraham and Moses. It’s a story of a God who promises and keeps his promises, even though his answers often carry surprises. It’s a story that’s seen a lot of tides come in and go out. Hold onto that story. Preach that story. Live that story. So the tide’s going out? So what?

Sixth. You are not alone. Remember Elijah, cowering in fear, sure everyone had deserted him. A voice told him that 8,000 had not bowed to Baal. You have far more than 8,000. Some of them you know. Many you don’t know. But they are out there, working their tails off, often not sure exactly what to do. You are not alone. When you DO feel alone, it’s your depression that’s getting you.

Seventh. You may not win. We did not sign papers when we came on board, papers that said “You will never face losses or failure!” As a matter of fact, the name on your ordination (not necessarily the papers) is the name of somebody who ended up on a cross.

Eighth. Prepare for the long run. Tides change when tides change. We are likely to have to lead for a long time in hard times. Don’t expect anything to be quick or easy. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve been called into a marathon, not a sprint. You may have to pass the baton to another before the race is over.

At the end of all this, Mead says something that is the hard truth:

Advice. That’s the best I have to offer. But let me say one thing straight and clear: over the past 50 years, we and many church leaders have gradually begun dodging reality.

In someways, congregations have denied the reality that things were changing. We also tried to find some magic trick that would change things and get us "back to normal." But the fact is, the world changed, and in some cases there was nothing to be done about it.

So what do we do? Living in faith. As Mead notes, we have faith in a God that loves us. Peter left his boat and Abraham gave up a nice retirement because they heard the call to follow God. They relied on faith. I think in the midst of it, we are called to be faithful and put our trust in God. We have no idea where God will lead us, but it will be a wonderful ride.

In someway, that little girl who gave out hugs reminds me that this is what the church is called to be, a faithful community that embraces God's world, welcoming all who come by.

Live in faith. Give out hugs. Have fun.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Silence

Lately, I've found it hard to write.

It's not that I don't have anything to say- it's just that I have over time learned to not share my true feelings in public- which has in the long run, made it hard to write since writing (at least for me) means share what I feel.

I think I've just learned over the years the futility of sharing one's views. When you tell them what you really feel, I've noticed how offended they become. So, I learned to just keep my trap shut. Better to keep the peace.

I've learned to keep quiet not just online, but in day to day life. I don't share my views or questions. I don't want to upset people and "get in trouble" with friends who may not agree.

But doing this comes at a price. When you don't say anything to keep the peace, you end up shutting yourself down.

I think that's gotta change. I have views and I have opinions and I'm tired of trying to be "nice." I want be able to debate and to actually have conversations with people on issues where we might not see eye-to-eye and yet respect one another.

So, I am going to learn to be more open and honest and damn the torpedoes.

It's time to break the silence.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sunday Sermon- "In the Hood for Good"

One part of this sermon was not included in the written version.  Daniel and I are in the midst of adding on to our house. During the summer, we had an old and sick maple tree chopped down.  Daniel had found a business called "Wood in the Hood," which takes urban felled trees and make them into something.  In our case, we made them into a hardwood floor found in our bedroom- a reminder that God can take what seems old and useless and by the Spirit, make it into something of use for God.

“In the Hood for Good”

Joel 2:23-32, Luke 18:9-14
October 24, 2010
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

This phrase has been rattling around my head for the last few months. It comes from the book of Joel. Shortly after Jesus ascending into heaven, his apostle Peter uses this passage on the day of Pentecost to explain the outpouring of the Spirit on what was to become the Church.

For whatever reason, this passage comes to mind whenever I think about this congregation. The passage talks about old men, or maybe old people and the young. When I look at this congregation, I happen to see a lot of old(er) people . I think about what the prophet Joel has to say about the old folks and how they will dream dreams. The prophet doesn’t have a picture of senior citizens living out their golden years in ease. No, the Holy Spirit will be poured out, causing these elders to dream what they had not dreamed before.

It’s funny that the prophet sees old people in the way he does. It’s funny because we don’t see the grey hairs in the same way: we see them as a problem.

One of the issues facing our church and countless others within our denomination and throughout Mainline Protestantism is the graying of our churches. Fewer younger folks are coming to church and our churches are getting older and greyer. We wonder what will happen to the church as we get near to retirement, or we enter or later stages of life. Church leaders want to find someway to reach out to younger folks and we try to find ways to be relevant and hip.

In doing so, we start to see older folks as a problem. You guys aren’t hip. Some of you don’t know how to use Facebook, let alone Twitter. You don’t like the new hymns.

So, we kind of write you off and wait for you all to die off so that we can on to the business of ministry.

But Joel also talks about young men having visions. That gets me thinking about our children and youth. They might be few in number, but they make a large impact in the life of our church. But the thing is, as much as we want to have younger folks, we- meaning the larger church- don’t want them too young. We don’t know how to deal with kids especially in worship. We think they say cute things, but why in the world should we take them seriously? They don’t have a degree or anything. Maybe once the church gets back on its feet, we will concentrate on kids, but until then, they are best seen and definitely not heard.

It is so easy to look at ourselves and see the grey hair coupled with the little ones and wonder how in God’s name can we have a future? How can this little church be transformed with nothing but old people and a few kids?

The background of this passage is that the Israelites had just faced a catastrophe. A plague of locusts had basically denuded the land leave devastation in its wake. There was very little left and the people were starving. It’s in the midst of this that the prophet comes out with this crazy notion that somehow there will be restoration. He believes hope will have the last word.

It wasn’t too long ago, that Bob preached about all the major events that have happened to this community over the last decade or so. But he also talked about the movement of the Spirit taking place in this church.

The passage says that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. Everyone would bathe in the refreshing waters of the Spirit. And just for emphasis, the prophet wanted to let us know that it might be poured out on people we don’t expect, on people we tend to discount. Old people. Young people.

That’s kind of the way it is with ministry when it is led by the Spirit. You will never know where you end up or who will lead you there.

I’m not going to give examples of the people I’ve seen both young and old who are leading this church, empowered by the Spirit- I don’t want to embarrass them. But I do want you to allow yourselves to start seeing things through the eyes of the Spirit in the way Joel did. He was able to see hope where there was none.

In the last year or so, I’ve seen people of all ages, but especially the very young and very old who are showing this church that there is still life left in us, that God is not through with us. The Spirit is being poured out here at 22nd and First, my friends.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

God give us the eyes to see it. Thanks be to God. Amen.