Ferguson

I was not surprised by the Ferguson decision.  The steps taken seventy two hours before, and even announcing the decision at night (during a Monday night football game no less) told me the powers that be were doing everything they could to mitigate a negative response.  Unfortunately that has not occurred.  Violence, looting, and lawlessness have returned to the streets of this troubled St. Louis suburb.

When you look at the evidence put forth: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/national/ferguson-grand-jury-findings/?tid=sm_fb  you surely understand the ruling.  If events occurred as presented – someone who had physically attacked a police officer on solo-duty, was moving back toward the officer, and the officer feared for his or her life, such a person is likely to be shot.  I think this is true no matter one’s race or the setting.

I do believe our law enforcement officers need better non-lethal tools at their disposal. “Set phasers to stun” might sound like science fiction but technologically, it is possible if we should desire it (I am not speaking of literal phasers but of various non-lethal weapons that we have the scientific know how to develop now).  But all that is not on the particular officer’s head in this particular setting.  It is a societal problem that we have an absolute love affair with guns and send out our law enforcement officers with little recourse than to kill in many settings.

The reaction of many to respond with lawlessness in Ferguson is disheartening.  And, so is the reaction of the general public that I have read all over the media this morning. Violence isn’t teaching anyone anything.  The rioters are likely torching their own neighborhoods and innocent shop owners who had nothing to do with the ruling.  But, in like manner, for many in the general public to treat this as a singular case and the rioting as nothing more than a spoiled and dependent culture in Ferguson is fairly myopic (and shows a willing disregard of history).  There are systematic problems that exist across our country that pertain to the criminal justice system and to pretend otherwise, that everyone is treated totally equally under the law, and justice is totally blind in our nation, is to be fairly naive (or uncaring).

Ferguson does not bring out our better angels in any manner or form.

The overwhelming majority on all sides would call themselves Christians.  Jesus Christ was the prince of peace.  Jesus Christ called for justice.  Jesus sat down with people “on the other side” of so many issues in his society.  Jesus had compassion for both people in power and people with no power.  Christ is with many today.

Let us highlight those working for peace, justice, and the rule of law on all sides of this divisive event.  Let us pray for peace.  Let us work for justice.  Let us stop demonizing people and thinking of “us” versus “them.”  Let people stop wearing masks.  Let us be a lawful and graceful people.

Let us work for a better America.

Until next time,

Tom

Getting back to an Equilibrium in the Church

I am a big reader of science fiction (at least when I find the time). I began when a high school friend got me to sign up for the “Science Fiction Book Club” and I have been hooked ever since. Some of those books were kind of written like Star Trek. Aliens would generally look like humans with different bumps and ridges but generally the same size as us and the same issues. But a few of the books portrayed alien life as it would develop on other planets – ones with more gravity and pressure. If human ships visited, they would have to alter their own internal pressurization or they would start crumpling like an aluminum can when you step on it. A ship designed for Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t be ready automatically simply to swoop into a planet with significantly more gravity and pressure. Without adjustments, the ship would slowly get crushed.

In seminary, I remember thinking after watching a science fiction show which showed a ship experiencing greater and greater external pressure and starting to compress – “That’s just what is going to happen to many mainline denominations when I grow older.”  My reasoning was that in church after church I went and visited, they were stocked full of active folks who were going to age out of leadership within a decade.  Human beings, even when blessed with many years, can only lead so long.  Take out those internal supports and outside pressure will start collapsing decks of the big ship Church.

Of course, the answer everyone had (and often still has) is that we must restock the church with younger people to reestablish the pressure balance.  It sounds good in theory.  In practice though, what worked in the 20th century does not translate for many in the 21st century.  We just aren’t going to swoop into this 21st century world and find enough folks not just to refill our pews but to perform the same functions as their parents and grandparents. And the structures they built, and the norms they established, aren’t compatible with the new atmosphere of family, single, or even retired life today.

What I didn’t foresee then though, but see more and more today, is that as the pressure increased, loyal souls within the church who stayed even as numbers dwindled rallied and often took up the roles of two, three, or more leaders to keep the ship stable.  But, as time has gone on, these “support structure” leaders are getting tired and burned out.  Particularly in neighborhood churches, I see this as a major issue.

We often rally to the cry of, “we need more people to help our leaders not burn out.”  But if someone is doing the job of three or four leaders, it gets harder and harder to say, “Hey, why don’t you do this for awhile?”  It may be fair but it isn’t exactly what folks thought of walking in the door of the church years ago.  We also will say, “Hey, the ‘hired guns’ are supposed to do this, aren’t they?” referring to whomever the church has on staff.  But a staff member is supposed to be a spiritual coach, teacher, and leader versus a player on the field.  Staff members today must step into the gaps and help connect the dots more than ever.  But, hiring someone to do what members and friends of the church used to do isn’t exactly the solution the church needs either.

Re-Design is the only answer that makes sense to me.  If the church isn’t structured for its current environment, the answer isn’t to keep pushing on till the ship can go no further.  It is to redesign it for its new environment. This may mean sharing our (“ship”) i.e. facilities.  It may mean having smaller staffs.  It may mean moving.  But the bottom line is we are called to follow God together.  And we have to lose the blissful image of the way we think things should be and start building for the atmosphere that really surrounds us.

One thing that is vital and absolutely central is for us all to get back to why we gathered in the first place (or why our parents brought us to church).  It has to be about a deepening relationship with God (and with one another). If church is not accomplishing this central purpose, then we need to figure out how we can restructure to do just that.  It may seem like an odd question, but if you go to church, when is the last time you talked about God in church? When is the last time you felt God in church? When is the last time you felt God answering a prayer you lifted up in church? If the answer to these questions are hard to answer, it may be prime time for us to take a step back and re-evaluate. It’s important to remember – our classes, our choirs, our meetings, our buildings, and even our worship services are not eternal. The only thing promised to last are our relationships with God and one another are.  We’ve got to get back to that being our central focus versus all the things “church” has come to mean over the years.

Stepping away from it all may seem like a healthy answer if we are wearing out.  If you are tired, you may need someone else to step in for a time. But I surely do not think God wants us to burn out worshiping him.  God certainly doesn’t want us to feel hopeless. Just as the moment came for Elijah in the wilderness when he was numbly lying on the ground ready to give up but God had not given up on him – so I know God has not given up on us. God called Elijah back to lead through that still small voice. I know that voice is present still today.

When it comes to the community of faith, we simply have to seek a way that makes it work for us in this time and place.  That might call for a radical redesign.  But God has redesigned his people many times and in many ways over the eons.  Despite our thoughts about the church being stagnant, it has changed and continues to change. But will we be a part of what God is doing?

We can find a way to get back to a healthy equilibrium.  I just don’t think it involves keeping or “fixing” the status quo. I really believe more than at any other time in history, local neighborhood churches are being called to be innovative and they need innovative leaders. Following God’s call, we can adapt and even thrive in this new atmosphere – especially if we let go of designs meant for yesteryear.

I hope that wherever you worship, you will continue to give a part of your life to helping a community of faith redesign itself to bring us all closer to God and to one another.  It isn’t just a nice thing to do.  I truly believe it is part of why we are here.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

When Prayer Doesn’t Seem to Work

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Paul told us to pray constantly (1 Thes 5:17).  This sounds good for people of faith, when it appears to be working.  I don’t mean by this that God becomes for us a magic genie and that we get exactly what we ask for (which would be nice but most people of faith realize that that is not what faith is all about).  But what gets frustrating and disheartening is when we pray for something and it seems like we get no response.  Not, “Yes.”  Not “No.”  Not, “Try this instead.”  But rather we don’t seem to sense an answer at all.  Then what are we to do?

One of the simple games I used to like to play as a kid were the puzzles where you had to draw a line through a maze.  You kind of intuitively had to guess which the right way to go was because if you guessed wrong, you could travel a long way with your pencil to reach a dead end.  In real life, people develop mazes, sometimes with hedges, and sometimes in corn fields, and people spend hours trying to find the solution.  As children and adults we like all this because it often parallels with experiences we have in real life. Life can feel just like that, particularly when we hit a dead end.  We get to an end which wasn’t meant to be where we were supposed to go.  But we don’t want to backtrack, it seems like such wasted energy.  But maybe sometimes that is precisely what God wants and intends for us to do (and learn from it).

Another parallel I see today is in hearing.  I distinctly remember as a child hearing things my parents and grandparents could not. Oftentimes they wouldn’t believe me! I try to use this to my advantage today.  When my own children hear something I do not, instead of dismissing it, I try to pay attention to it.  I ask them lots of questions about the noise they are hearing.  I might not be able to hear it, but that doesn’t mean there is no noise. In like manner, I think sometimes when we get stuck, God is going to give us a solution that we have been praying for through another person.  Again, like backtracking, we might not like this.  We often like to solve our problems by ourselves.  But maybe asking someone else for help is just what God wants us to do.

Whatever the challenge, remember, God isn’t going to leave you at a dead end, even if you feel like that is just where you are. God will lead you over, under, around that barrier – or maybe down another path which isn’t blocked at all.  I think when we feel blocked, even after prayer, we need to talk it out, listen, and be patient.

Of course this applies to prayers about others and about groups (like congregations and families) as well as individual prayers.

I still believe Paul was right.  Pray constantly.  But we also need to be open to discerning God’s answer and flexible on what we are called to do next.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Worship Like It’s 1999

These past two weekends I have had the joy of being a part of installing pastors at two area churches.  Doing so surely made me reflect back over the time since I have been installed at Parkway (in September of 2008).  As I welcomed my two new brothers in ministry, and spoke with their nominating committees and congregations, I offered them in those moments my best advice in light of my own and many other experiences I have learned of over the years.

But more and more, I am focusing on one item that I didn’t raise to them at the time but I am growing increasingly convinced is a big issue in ministry in all churches in 2014.  I think electronic communications are causing more problems for churches than helping them today.  I’m not quite to the point of many essays I have read entitled, “Is the internet killing the church?” But I do think it is distracting us hugely from what is central.

When I arrived in 2008, I was told, by many sources, “Pastor, do you want to know what an issue is in our church?  Communications!”  Tell that to a guy coming off active duty with a penchant for technology and writing and I thought, “Well, this is right up my alley!”  Since 2008 at Parkway we have created brand new Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  On top of this, we have redesigned our website (at least three times), put out a much more detailed newsletter than most churches twice our size produce, put announcements in bulletins, send out text messages, and, of course, email after email.  We send out a weekly email called, “This Week at Parkway” which has all of our events.  We also have something that is kind of a reverse answering machine which we can record information into and send out to all of our members and friends called a Phone Tree. We have made exterior signs and put up banners for various events.  On top of this I have been posting sermons on Facebook and in the recent past, we put audio versions of the sermon on the website. We have actively pondered how to re-post choral pieces on line.  And we have church physical mailboxes which always fill up with printed and written messages.

I’m not saying all of the above meets everyone’s standards of tastes or style.  We regularly get input of, “We need more of this” or “less of that” in this medium or another. Nevertheless, if our issue was relaying information in the church, I’m ready, six years later to hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner.  There is no way, no matter how one prefers their church communications (a major issue in the 21st century as not everyone has embraced each of these communication mediums) that anyone even remotely interested in Parkway cannot easily find out when, where, and how of each and every event.

So, the church has gotten to that promised land of where we need to be, right?  Not exactly.

If I could go back to 2008, when someone said, “Do you want to know what our problem is – communication?”, I should have responded, “Well, why aren’t we talking to one another?”  I believe spiritual experiences happen between people, not between people and electronic media.  If people were talking to each other, they would know what was going on.  Hindsight, as it were, is always 20/20.

I’m not saying we can totally go back to 1999, or before, when there was little to no electronic media in church communications.  We live in the world we live in. Our neighbors largely are not going to look us up in the Yellow Pages or make a decision on whether to go to a church or not by what’s on the physical sign out front.  Website pages, Facebook pages, and the like need to be current and give people a visual image of what to expect when they come in the door.

But I do believe we have to get back to the concept that when people walk into the door – our churches needs to be spiritual places where people come to connect with God and with one another.  And that is not going to happen via a newsletter, a blog, a Facebook post, a Tweet, or a text message.  When we can’t be there, the old technology from 1999 is still probably the best – the phone – with a live person on the other end talking with you.  But, better than that, is connection in person.

I know it is ironic that I am posting this on a blog which will get reposted via Facebook and Twitter.  I probably am going to put it in a future church newsletter too.  But, I would just say the one last piece of advice that I would give to new pastors is that you can have the best website, blog, and church newsletter in the business and it is not going to build your church.  We need to get back to, “Where two or more are gathered, I am with you.”  I believe it is vital.

I will still email sermons to folks who live out of town, or who were traveling.  I will still post blogs now and again.  At home, I will re-post and comment on items that I find interesting online on Facebook and Twitter.  But I am going to stop trying to recreate everything online for folks who aren’t here. The person in the office or hospitality area is more important than twenty I can email. If people are curious (and are local) I hope they will come and see here at Parkway what is going on. Because what is special about Parkway, and so many other churches, is the people. It is through them that we connect with God and build community.  And even with pictures and stories, you can’t connect with them online like you can in person. The more we get together, the more we are drawn closer to God.  And if folks can’t get to church, we in the church need to go and see them, in person.  That’s where I am going to put my focus in 2014, much unlike 2008.

Communication, in person, like it’s 1999.  That’s my focus right now.  Communication with God.  And communication with God’s people.

What do you think?

Until Next Time,

Tom

Disagreeing with Solomon

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There is much in the media this week about corporal punishment due to some high profile cases involving NFL players.  It has generated much talk on the radio, on the internet, and in the news.  I therefore thought it time I write something about this as a pastor.

Corporal punishment is employed by a majority of parents in our country.  An even higher majority received corporal punishment as children.  And, there is a Bible verse, from Solomon no less, encouraging it “Spoil the rod and spoil the child” he famously wrote. I, myself, have spanked my children at times. So, by far, the safest route would be for me to write something in favor of it.  But I’m not.

I do not believe that corporal punishment damages the psyche of most children.  I do not think it makes children grow into violent people as adults either.  I do think Solomon believed what he wrote when he wrote it too.  But I am opposed to corporal punishment because, bottom line, I do not think it works. Think back to when you were a kid and adults spanked you, did it change who you were to get spanked?  Did it change your outlook on life?  Did it seriously influence your behavior when you were away from the person who spanked you?  For me, the answer to all of those questions would be no.  I also know that just as plenty of good people were spanked as children, plenty of bad ones were too.  I don’t see it influencing at all if someone turns out good or bad.  I do acknowledge that it may cause children to temporarily change their behavior to suit the adults in the area.  But, in the end, it can easily can encourage more crafty bad behavior as much as anything else.

As a pastor, I don’t toss Solomon’s maxim off easily.  But I do always turn to Jesus and look to him as the ultimate example (I could go off on a tangent of how we “religious folks” tend to quote the Old Testament more than the New but I won’t).  While Jesus did once use violence to make a point – driving the money changers out of the temple – there is no image of him doing this or encouraging it between powerful adults and far weaker children.  I think Jesus would encourage parents or those in charge of children to use their minds more than their brawn to discipline them.

Another part of the Bible does come into play as well.  When asking if someone should eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul, on the one hand, says there are no other gods so it isn’t a real sacrifice anyway (I am greatly paraphrasing here) but he also said not to do anything to make other people sin.  I think as Christians we need to recognize while most parents employ corporal punishment not to really hurt but to scare their children into better behavior – there are people who go overboard with this and think they have God’s license to do so.  There are children who come away with physical bruises, or worse, from parents who think they are doing “God’s will” as they use their might against their own offspring, supposedly to “correct them.”  I think God’s people need to forcefully say that this is not what God wants.

I do think failure to discipline a child will spoil the child.  Solomon was right on that.  When my parents or administrators were disappointed in me, when they convinced me my actions were not helpful, and when I saw the fruits of my own bad behavior, it helped me change course.  But being hit with a paddle had nothing to do with that.

Failure to discipline is a problem in our society.  I just think we are better than using rods to do so.

What do you think?

In Christ,

Tom

Ray and Janay Rice and Time For Change

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At this time of year, Ray Rice is used to being in the news, but not in this way. As anyone who watches the news on the internet or on TV by now, Mr. Rice was indefinitely suspended by the NFL because a video surfaced showing him punching Mrs. Rice in the face and knocking her out. Both husband and wife are dismayed by the media coverage and feel this is a private matter left to them. I am sure they are both worried about his professional prospects in the future. To me though, what it highlights isn’t at its core about the Rices (certainly not just about them).  If at least for a moment, with our short attention span in our society, it highlights the cultural norm, worldwide and historic, of violence against women.

Here are just a few fast facts to refresh us on the topic:

~ In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.

~ In India, 8,093 cases of dowry-related death were reported in 2007; an unknown number of murders of women and young girls were falsely labeled ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.

~In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, between 40 and 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their intimate partners.

~In the State of Chihuahua, Mexico, 66 percent of murders of women were committed by husbands, boyfriends or other family members.

~Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.

~An estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.

~The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced.

~Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.3 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million). Violence and abuse characterize married life for many of these girls. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.

Is it just that the Rice’s are singled out for what is a worldwide phenomenon?  No.  Kind of like getting a speeding ticket, sometimes if you are in the eye of the law, you are going to get caught at something you might never have if you were elsewhere doing this same thing (and many others have and will continue to do the same).  Regardless, and even if provoked, a man should control his anger and never act out in violence against anyone, more less his wife. Men and women are given their strength to protect one another – not abuse one another.

But far more significant than this one case is that the litany of facts listed above (and these are but a few) do not stop us in our tracks about what is “normal” for half of the human race. We have got to train up a new generation on what is and is not acceptable. And using your strength against someone weaker is not who we are called to be.  For Christians, it is the absolute last thing Christ ever would do.

When is it time for change?  Now.  Let us get the word out, particularly to those closest to us, that violence against women is not like an epidemic (something new that has just swept in).  It is an unhealthy norm for humanity. It has been true for countless generations.  Yet, we have unlearned many harmful practices in the past and we can unlearn this one.

If you are a woman experiencing violence in the home, let someone know.  There are many professionals, including your clergy person of choice, who will help connect you the support that you need.  Do not suffer alone.

This is not just a personal issue for the Rice family.  This is an issue that plagues humanity.

By God’s grace, may we change.

Until next time, 

Tom

 

Peace? In Today’s World?

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One of the most peaceful settings I encountered this year was right before Parkway’s Sunrise Service on Easter Sunday.  Lafreniere Park was beautiful, the weather was gorgeous, and lots of our members and many who were just in the park that morning, came to give thanks to God for the resurrection of Jesus and what it means to all of us.

What do we do though, when we gather in the name of the Prince of Peace, and yet encounter stories in our news (or maybe in our lives) which make us feel anything but peaceful?  What if instead of the above, we feel like this:

Stormy Weather

I don’t think the answer is to close our eyes and hum, “I’m so Happy.”  As a matter of fact, after the crucifixion, the Bible tells us the world looked more like the second picture than the first. I suspect it was how God felt at the time. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand and just thinking “positive thoughts.”

There is injustice in the world.  There is evil in the world.  I do believe this needs to be addressed. I do think Christians need to be involved and not wall ourselves off from the world.  I don’t find pacifism or isolationism as the answer.  Nevertheless, we need to address problems, to the best of our ability, as Jesus did (who didn’t run away from trouble).  We need to remember that Christians are called to overcome evil, not with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).  We need to look for lost sheep who might be called back before it is too late. And one of overall principles we must keep is that our way, Jesus’ way, was to transform rather than destroy.

Yet, we are still imperfect (and live in an imperfect world).  Sometimes we can’t transform.  We have to decide what the right thing to do is on such occasions for the collective good.  

But let us never just meld into the population and have our opinion non-distinct from the crowd.  Let us never forget who we are.  May we always be distinctive as followers of Jesus Christ.  And let us remember the end, which has already been determined, is not here yet and God is still God.

Peace to you in months with troubling news (be it far or near),

In Christ,

Tom

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